“I am genuinely frightened.”
This person was not reacting to a photo of a spider, or to a question about their opinion on heights. Instead, they were responding to a Community Care story on the prospect of David Cameron committing to “more ambitious” reforms of social services and child protection.
In a speech last Friday (11 September), billed as ‘Smarter State’, the most powerful man in the country continued a commitment to reforming and improving child protection and children’s services that began with May’s election victory.
Since May, the government has set up a child protection taskforce, which the Prime Minister said “will overhaul the way that police, social services and other agencies work together locally”; said that child protection would be a “big focus” over the next five years; and has now told failing children’s services to transform or risk being taken over by independent trusts. He has also earmarked children in care and youth justice as areas for reform.
For a profession that can feel undervalued, the Prime Minister’s focus on this sector could have been welcome news. However, the commenter above was not the only person expressing concern, even fear, about this latest development.
Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, said: “I think if taking more of a focus on child protection [meant] that we would be given more time to work with children and families, if we would be given more resources to help families to get into difficulty, if we were given more capacity to improve the care of children living away from their families, that would all be good news, [but] that’s not what Mr. Cameron is seeking to do.”
Bridget Robb, the chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, waded in on Tuesday to say the Prime Minister had championed privatisation, and that the speech was an “insult to our intelligence”.
However, Robb explained to Community Care that senior politicians taking an active role in child protection and children’s services reform was to be expected in the current climate.
Ofsted has found 47 of 61 local authorities inspected under the Single Inspection Framework are less than good, while West Berkshire is a recent example of a local authority which has had an improvement partner appointed. The Prime Minister’s attention arguably began in the last parliament, when a wave of damning reports on child sexual exploitation led to him upgrading sexual abuse to a ‘national threat’, and threatening to jail social workers for wilful neglect.
All of this is occurring against a backdrop of political and institutionalised child abuse being revealed.
“The impact in the reports of Rotherham and elsewhere across the UK in child exploitation is to reveal that young people are at enormous risk in our society. It is absolutely right that politicians in every party take the safety of our children very seriously,” Robb said.
What’s the problem?
So what’s the problem with the Prime Minister getting involved in reforming children’s services?
A government spokesperson told Community Care that the Prime Minister has “always been clear about the importance of making sure that we protect the most vulnerable – and ensuring that we do have a child protection system with the quality and expertise to do this”.
The spokesperson said the government introduced fundamental reforms to children’s social work in the last parliament, with more than £695 million spent on social work training and improvement, and the Prime Minister had set out the government’s “ambition to continue this focus over the next five years”.
Robb, however, said it was frustrating that politicians approached children’s services with the assumption that they were all failing. “It is absolutely right that children are being failed by our society to keep them safe, but to say that that is the sole responsibility of social workers is just wrong,” she said.
There is also the perception that government positions itself as the solution, riding in to save the day at failing authorities, while not seeing its own policies as part of the problem.
Jones argued: “The same time he [David Cameron] is giving us a high profile, he and his chancellor have been cutting the funding available to those trying to protect children. So one has to be concerned about how strong that commitment is to protecting children and improving services, when the funding and services are being desolated.”
In a recent survey by Community Care, more than 70% of 1,093 social workers felt they did not have the resources to protect children, while nine out of 10 felt budget cuts were putting more children at risk.
Cameron’s most recent intervention focused on how to approach failing councils, telling them to transform or be taken over by independent children’s trusts. He also spoke about reforming the public sector in the same way that businesses evolve, and talked about how insurgent companies energised many markets.
This stoked up ongoing fears about the government pursuing a privatisation agenda, something the government spokesperson denied it had any intention of doing, and it also involved Cameron backing a model of delivery that hasn’t yet been fully evaluated.
The government has already intervened twice to establish independent children’s trusts where local authority children’s services have been failing, in Doncaster and Slough. But Slough’s trust doesn’t officially launch until the end of September, and Doncaster is currently undergoing the first Ofsted inspection of its new arrangements.
Despite this, the government spokesperson said Doncaster had been shown to be making a significant improvement, and that the government wanted to see other innovative models emerge to support improvement in local authorities, such as Achieving for Children in Kingston and Richmond.
While the decision to separate children’s services from direct local authority control in these two areas and run them through a social enterprise company was a choice, rather than being enforced by central government, it is a model that has won praise from inspectors. Kingston jumped from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ in its last inspection, and Ofsted praised “an impressive level of change in service delivery for children and families”. Leaders at Achieving for Children have previously told Community Care how independence has allowed them to get out of council culture, “create your own culture, and to be different and behave differently”.
Beware of the market
Robb is sceptical that moving services out of local government control, however good or bad local government is, will improve services for children.
“It’s not that we’ve got all the answers either,” Robb said, “but it doesn’t help when the government, or David Cameron, simplistically says that everything is wrong. We are facing challenges that we have never quite faced before and we really need to work together to find a solution.”
Many of the concerns raised by the Prime Minister’s calls for more reform in child protection relate to the possibility of privatisation. Robb said that in the wider context of public services reform, which has meant growing private sector involvement, it’s difficult not to view his commitments to reform within a privatisation context.
Jones agreed: “The political ideology of this government is to open everything up to the commercial marketplace. The commercial marketplace competes primarily on price and they [social workers] are fearful of service quality being trumped by the profit motive.”
However, Robb said the profession must earn back the trust of the Prime Minister and government.
“We have to find a way to give him confidence in our profession, but he also needs to stop hammering us on the assumption that everything is wrong, because neither is true. He needs to show he is willing to work with us to make things better as well,” Robb said.
She added: “The fear comes from his, and not just his, starting point that social workers always get it wrong, and until that rhetoric changes then it’s very hard for the social work profession to have confidence in him, and I accept that it’s equally hard for him to have confidence in the social work profession so somehow we have got to change the rhetoric and dialogue.”