What does David Cameron’s improvement agenda mean for children’s social care?

When and how will the government intervene in children's services, and is privatisation part of the Prime Minister's agenda?

Photo: David Hartley/Rex Shutterstock

On Monday, David Cameron announced more details of his long talked about plans to step up interventions in children’s services. He has spoken for months about innovation, new models of delivery and, ultimately, takeovers of failing services.

A series of measures outlined by the Prime Minister this week seemed to formalise the process for local authority children’s services to be converted into children’s trusts. So what do we know about these proposals, and how will they affect social work?

What exactly will be the grounds for intervention?

A commissioner will be appointed wherever Ofsted finds evidence of “persistent or systemic” failure. This is defined by a spokesperson for the Prime Minister as:

  • An authority which has received more than two ‘inadequate’ ratings in the previous five years
  • An ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating which identified wholesale inadequate services, and evidence of corporate failure by senior leaders and managers
  • An ‘inadequate’ rating has been issued but there has been no sign of improvement after six months

What will the commissioner do?

The commissioner will oversee the running of children’s services and have the power to direct the authority to make urgent improvements. The commissioner will also have the power to oversee the takeover of a children’s services by a high-performing local authority, or the creation of a new trust within 12 months of being appointed. The new trust would be inspected by Ofsted a year after it was set up.

Does Ofsted have the capacity to do this, and what will inspections look like?

Ofsted is still agreeing the details of the plan with the government, so is unable to give any details on what the inspections of trusts 12 months after they are set up may look like, or whether it has the capacity to take on this increased inspection burden.

It was reported earlier this year that Ofsted’s inspections of children’s services were experiencing funding problems, so having to re-inspect a service 12 months after it becomes a trust could put added strain on inspections.

Earlier this year, Ofsted’s national director for social care, Eleanor Schooling, floated the idea of using the current single inspection framework (SIF) outcomes as a “baseline” for smaller inspections in the future, which could mean a different kind of inspection focusing on the key problem areas for these new trusts.

How many authorities could face intervention?

The Prime Minister’s plans place much weight on Ofsted’s judgments, and latest figures from its inspections of local authorities under the SIF show many are being told to make improvements.

Photo: Ofsted

Photo: Ofsted

However, one negative Ofsted report will not be enough to kick-start the trust process; the focus is on “persistent” failure, and also systemic failures throughout an organisation, so organisations which have been criticised in a particular inspection do have time to improve their services.

Can a service rated ‘inadequate’ avoid being moved into a trust?

Yes, if it can show a “radically different” picture in the months following the inspection. The government said that where a service is found to be inadequate, it will provide extra scrutiny to identify what went wrong and produce an effective improvement plan within three months. The government will review improvement progress after six months. If the progress is insufficient, a commissioner will be appointed to remove the services from direct local authority control and create a trust.

Is a six-month timescale for turning around services realistic?

In short – no. Alison O’Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, says: “Real, effective change cannot occur within six or in some cases even 12 months. And whilst it is essential to take steps to act quickly where failure is identified, there is no one size fits all approach to remedying complex problems.”

Doncaster, the first council to have its children’s services moved into a trust under direction from government, was rated ‘inadequate’ in November, 13 months after it moved into a trust, and more than three years after a previous ‘inadequate’ rating. Although Ofsted’s latest report did identify improvements in every area of service other than child protection, this case raises a key question: if a troubled authority which has had children’s services moved into a trust can’t improve its inspection outcome in three years, how realistic is a six-month turnaround for an authority facing similar problems?

What does the children’s trust model involve?

A trust or community interest company model involves an independent body, which is either commissioned or owned by the parent council, delivering children’s services on the authority’s behalf. Nick Whitfield, chief executive of Achieving for Children, which provides children’s services in both Kingston and Richmond, wrote for Community Care last week about what the model meant for the local authority.

He said that, when developing the model, the organisation felt it would provide “the freedom to do things differently, bring in external expertise and expand our trading potential, while offering accountability and assurance through council ownership”.

Other mooted benefits of the model are that it allows social workers and people working within the organisation to know they are in a place solely focused on the outcomes of children, and provides freedom from council bureaucracy.

In the trust models already in place, in Doncaster, Slough, Kingston and Richmond, social workers and other employees of the existing service have been transferred into new, independent organisations, rather than there being a large change of workforce, including redundancies.

Who are Cameron’s child protection experts?

One interesting part of Cameron’s announcement was that, as well as high-performing local authorities and charities, he said child protection experts would be drafted in to help turn around local authorities.

Looking at recent commissioners, this could mean directors of highly-rated services or services rated ‘good’ by Ofsted. Nick Whitfield (Kingston and Richmond) was made commissioner for Sunderland, and Dave Hill (Essex) has been made commissioner for Norfolk.

Eleanor Brazil has been made commissioner for Sandwell, a role she also occupied in Slough and Doncaster after being a director at Birmingham.

Another avenue could be private consultants. When West Berkshire was rated ‘inadequate’, private company Exploring Choices was brought in. Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, used her response to Cameron’s plans to criticise a “failed” decision made in Sandwell in 2013, where more than £1 million was spent on bringing in private consultancy iMPOWER to improve the services, and the service was then rated ‘inadequate’ this year, although the inspection made no mention of its involvement.

Are charities prepared to take on child protection services?

Barnardo’s, NSPCC and Action for Children welcomed the announcement to improve children’s services, but their statements were vague about their position on taking a direct role in delivering child protection services.

Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, said: “There must be options, where it is best for the child, to use the expertise of the voluntary sector to complement those already in place.”

Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, said: “Partnerships are the way forward and any partnership under these proposals will need appropriate safeguards and an understanding of what works for children.”

But there have been questions raised about charities’ preparedness to take on a statutory role, and their willingness to take on responsibilities for such high-risk services.

There have also been concerns from prominent academics that private companies may set up not-for-profit arms to allow whole services to be outsourced to them, and these companies could then deliver services cheaply and pass on profits to their owner.

However, Eleanor Brazil, speaking to Community Care when she was appointed commissioner for Slough last year, said: “I don’t think any local authority would want to commission from an organisation like that.”

Is this preparing the ground for privatisation?

The major reaction to the announcement on Community Care’s Facebook page was that this is another step towards the privatisation of children’s services. But children’s services are unlikely to be privatised in the same way as other public services, notably utilities, where shares were floated on the stock exchange and bought by private investors.

Independent trusts and community interest companies as they exist in children’s services now are either commissioned or owned by councils, which use public money to pay for the service and retain some level of public accountability and ownership. Achieving for Children has previously won a contract to provide advice and support to local authorities whose safeguarding services have been judged as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, and offers itself as a consultancy service. But because of its position as a community interest company, any money it makes from winning these contracts is locked and reinvested into its own services.

Private influence and positions within the sector are different matters, though; as Community Care reported this year, the Department for Education (DfE) spent, on average, almost £3 million each month in the first quarter of 2015-16 on private companies to deliver children’s services reforms.

A report published this week on corporatewatch.org found how, in the case of independent foster care providers, “millions of pounds that could be reinvested in the care of children are leaving the system as bumper payouts to shareholders”. The two biggest foster care agencies had received £127.2 million and £94.5 million respectively in income from foster care in 2014.

The Guardian has reported on meetings where the DfE supposedly looked at ways to build a ‘marketplace’ in children’s social care.

Child protection experts and charities (or charitable arms of private companies) looking to become more involved in the improvement of children’s services could be emboldened by this week’s announcement. However, greater private sector involvement in frontline children’s social work is likely to depend on the will of the commissioning council to put children’s services in untested hands – whereas the introduction of independent trusts has so far involved the transfer of the same staff into a new organisation – and how keen private companies are to get involved in a high-risk sector where funding is likely to fall, rather than increase, as well as risking reputational damage when things go wrong.

More from Community Care

4 Responses to What does David Cameron’s improvement agenda mean for children’s social care?

  1. Phil Sanderson December 16, 2015 at 8:47 pm #

    Social care is going to follow what the Tories and Labour started in schools until they are all in the hands of private business. It is clear from Sandwell and Doncaster that Trusts are no better at addressing what are at the end of the day accute social problems brought on by neo liberal policies that enrich the 1% whilst families at the bottom of society have had the safety net stripped away. The tories want to destroy the social work profession and its values and it appears they are now well on the raod to doing so.

    • Chris Cheatle December 17, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

      I can only agree. Tories hate the Professions because they see them having specialist knowledge which threatens their political wisdom. They have a long history of trying to reduce Professions to Technicians.

  2. loiner December 18, 2015 at 12:52 am #

    this means that they are paving the way to privatise children’s services. several have already down that road. Children will not be the priority, but rather profit profit profit

  3. james Marsh December 19, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    There are not enough Ofsted inspectors to do this work, the regulator itself is in crisis. It is awful that over 25% of children social care services are Inadequate, how would the public and media respond if over 25% of schools were deemed Inadequate? As it social workers who mainly work with poor families the media and government do not seem to care.
    NIcky Morgan says it is not about money it is about leadership but there is a chronic lack of good leaders in Children Services and most are more concerned about their own reputation than vulnerable children. This is due in part to the blame culture which is so endemic across children services.
    This will only change when there is proper and meaningful investment in children social work, the Innovations programme will not work and DFE officials know that already. All it does is add more bureaucracy to obtaining funding.
    A combination of high case loads and the absurd privatised ICS systems makes being a childcare social worker these days such an impossible job with the outcome being that only 50% of social workers last more than two years in statutory childcare services. Until caseloads are reduced across the country to under 20 children per social worker services will continue to be in crisis. It is interesting to note that Isobelle Trowler’s old mate Mr Alan Wood from Hackney has been employed by DFE to review LSCBs.