You would be forgiven for missing the government celebrating success in social work amid all the recent talk of intervening in failure, driving up standards and the establishment of a new regulatory body.
However, in an announcement in December, when David Cameron outlined the government’s wide-ranging social work reforms, six local authorities were singled out to try new ‘academy-style freedoms’ for children’s services. This was later expanded in January by education secretary Nicky Morgan to nine ‘Partners in Practice’. The question is, what does this mean for social work and social workers?
The government’s ‘Partners in Practice’ are Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Islington, North Yorkshire, the Tri-Borough authorities (Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham, and Kensington & Chelsea), Leeds, Durham, Hampshire and Richmond and Kingston (which are run by Achieving for Children, a community interest company).
These councils have “freedoms to innovate, to improve frontline children’s social work and to develop new systems of delivering social care and trialling new ways of working with families”. The government is currently working with the partners to establish what these new freedoms could be, the authorities will be given the opportunity to try new approaches that might later be extended across the sector.
What are academy arrangements?
The Department for Education’s website defines academy schools as “publicly funded independent schools”.
Among a list of the freedoms afforded to them, academies don’t have to follow the national curriculum, they receive money directly from the government, not the local authority, and are run by an academy trust, which also employs the staff.
Some academies have sponsors, such as businesses or voluntary organisations. Academies can also form partnerships, otherwise known as academy chains or trusts, to give them more clout and greater economies of scale when commissioning services. Failing schools can be taken over by these trusts.
Under new plans, all schools rated inadequate by Ofsted could be turned into academies.
How the academy agenda might translate to social work
“I think structurally, the solutions may be different, but what you’re trying to achieve is the same,” says Debbie Barnes, director of children’s services for Lincolnshire, a Partner in Practice, and chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ educational achievement policy committee.
As leader of a Partner in Practice children’s service, Barnes has been briefed by the Department for Education. While she stresses discussions about what these freedoms could be are in their infancy, some of the key areas identified for innovation are regionalisation, new structures, good authorities supporting weaker ones, and the freeing up of individual practice.
“The essence of the academy programme was to give more freedom and flexibility to those head teachers who were good, to decide what would happen in their schools and I think what they want to do is work with good local authorities to see what freedoms they would want from working together to drive and improve local practice.”
One of the things this process could address is where neighbouring authorities could work together on certain services, says Barnes, who adds that the introduction of regional adoption agencies is a good example.
“Is there stuff that we’re doing that would be better done through a regional approach rather than an individual approach? Is there a highly specialised activity that we all do at a local authority level that, actually, we could share better practice to drive improvements across a wider geographical area?”
She says academisation in schools has driven a more geographical approach with schools forming partnerships to look at what they can do together, particularly in terms of back office school improvement.
This could mean improvements in practice achieved more cheaply because of the economies of scale that partnerships bring.
This approach has already happened in West London’s ‘Tri-borough’, where specialist services have been merged across three local authorities while services like child protection have been run locally.
The government has already made it clear that it would support a greater variety of models of children’s services in place (see graphic). Some progress has already been made on this front, with two trusts now operating, in Doncaster and Slough, one community interest company (Achieving for Children) and a new voluntary trust on the way in Sunderland.
Barnes says some of these new structures could be comparable to education academy chains as authorities partner with one another to improve. “If you’re looking at two or three local authorities working together then actually would you set up a two- or three-way owned local authority company, so that it’s still local authority? You’ve [then] got an alternative structure which you all have an equal share in rather than one taking over from the other.”
She says a lot of the government’s thinking is about encouraging conversation. “For example, devolution conversations are happening everywhere.
“So if you are, through devolution, looking at joint working, can also those same geographies apply to children’s services?
“I don’t think we’re talking about whole scale change, I think it would be about the government wanting to test out where it would make sense to do things on a wider geographical area. Where it wouldn’t make sense, it wouldn’t make sense.”
Supporting weaker authorities
This is where Barnes thinks the comparison with academy schools is strongest.
“Similar to the academy-style freedom they [the government] would want to see stronger authorities supporting weaker ones, like you have your stronger schools supporting those who are [rated by Ofsted as] ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’. I think that concept is being proposed as part of the Partners in Practice programme but that’s nothing new, because we’ve got local authorities partnering others already.”
Social workers in Sandwell recently said they would prefer being partnered with a high-performing local authority, and threatened industrial action if their children’s service was removed from council control. Norfolk (which is being supported by Essex) and Sunderland (Achieving for Children) are examples of areas where good authorities have been sent in to help improve services.
In comparison with how this has worked with schools, Barnes says: “I think, structurally, the solutions may be different. But what you’re trying to achieve is the same.”
Freeing up individual practice
An eye-catching part of the schools agenda is that academies are allowed to educate outside of the national curriculum, and the government seems to be keen to encourage a similar process in social work. In Children’s social care reform: a vision for change, a document setting out the principles behind its reform programme, the government praises its own cutting of 700 pages from the ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ guidance.
But it has also promised more cuts to the guidance.
For Barnes, this creates opportunities for how children’s services structure assessments: “I’d like to look at an opportunity to build our assessment around Signs of Safety [an approach to child protection being used in a number of authorities], whereas at the moment the assessment methodology is very prescribed through Working Together,” Barnes explains. “I think the opportunity to have more freedom around how we actually practice social care is really exciting.”
Concerns are always present in children’s services when the government says it would like external organisations to become involved in children’s social care. When you consider the criticism of academies for potentially opening the door to privatisation and profit making in education, these concerns could be understood.
Cameron’s announcement in December outlined a drive by the government to “recruit new trust sponsors from the charity sector to help deliver innovative children’s services”.
However, Barnes says the law is clear in this area and children’s services cannot, wholesale, be outsourced to the private sector. Outsourcing to the voluntary sector also presents “all sorts of challenges”.
She sees the talk of sponsors as more a discussion of structures and improvement. “I think through the Partners in Practice the intention is to explore what alternative possible structures there are.”
“Local authorities that are stronger working with local authorities that are inadequate, I think that’s the same direction of travel [as academies]. I think how you structurally achieve that may be different and so although you’re talking about sponsorship, that’s a structural solution or change.”
In a written statement to parliament, Nicky Morgan made clear she wanted to give the Partners in Practice “freedoms to innovate, to improve frontline children’s social work and to develop new systems of delivering social care and trialling new ways of working with families”.
But Barnes points out discussions are still in the early stages. What legislative freedoms the Partners in Practice might be given, and how these might develop, will come about after the discussions.
What is clear is the landscape of children’s services and social workers’ working environments will begin to look very different over the next few years.