Children’s minister Edward Timpson has defended government plans to strip councils of control over children’s services where there are “persistent” failures.
Giving evidence to the education committee’s inquiry into social work reforms Timpson said there was early evidence that moving children’s services in Doncaster and Slough into independent not-for-profit trusts was working.
He said: “What we’ve already seen in the first year [at Doncaster] is significant improvement from what was a very low end of inadequate, to a good adoption service. Many other elements have gone from inadequate to requires improvement.
“More importantly [we’ve seen] a whole culture change in that organisation. Social workers feel more valued, more supported and feel ownership of the service they are running. So there is emerging evidence from Doncaster, and from Slough’s initial reports, that it’s having a positive impact.”
Doncaster children’s trust has previously said an independent survey of staff found 73% were ‘very’ or ‘quite’ happy at the service.
Timpson said other new service models were also delivering improvements. He referred to Achieving for Children – a community-interest company which runs children’s services in Kingston and Richmond, Hampshire council running the Isle of Wight’s services, and the Tri-borough in London where three local authorities run services jointly.
“For me it’s about what works. And if it works, we should do it,” he said.
The government has pledged to takeover “persistently” failing children’s services and hand them to third-party providers if councils do not show enough improvement within six months of an inadequate Ofsted inspection.
Timpson said “it was only right” that ministers looked at other ways of delivering services where councils had not addressed “persistent failure”.
The plans have sparked fears that the government wants to privatise children’s services or adopt a model similar to the academies programme in education, where non-profit academy chains can be part-funded by corporate backers.
The government commissioned a report into developing capacity for delivering children’s services outside of local authorities. The study was due to be completed in September 2014. It has yet to be published but the Department for Education has agreed to release the findings “at some future date” after a Freedom of Information battle with Children and Young People Now magazine.
Asked by the committee about the report, Timpson declined to reveal the findings but said the paper was “helpful” and would be published in coming months.
“It’s trying to flesh out some of the ways we can deliver children’s services which are more innovative. It’s why we developed the innovation programme, so we can test these ideas out but in a risk-controlled environment,” he said.
“This is all about how can we give children who need protection, who are vulnerable, a greater prospect of receiving the services they need and those being sustained so they end up with the outcomes we know they’re capable of.”
Other key points
In a wide-ranging evidence session Timpson also:
- Insisted the government’s reform programme would help address “longstanding” issues with social worker retention, with the introduction of accredited frontline, practice leader and practice supervisor roles offering a “clear practice career pathway” to give practitioners the chance to develop.
- Denied the reforms risked fragmenting social work and insisted the Department of Health and Department for Education “were not pursuing different reform agendas”.
- Defended the decision to appoint separate chief social workers for children’s and adults, saying that having initially attempted to recruit one chief social worker to cover the whole profession, the government found “there was a stronger prospect of having high quality representation by having two”.
- Confirmed the government was reviewing the social work bursary’s “value for money” but promised consultation before a final decision on the grant’s future is made.
- Acknowledged caseload pressures on practitioners and said Ofsted needed to monitor these closely, but warned against setting “arbitrary” caseload caps given the variability in case complexity.
- Described The College of Social Work’s closure as “regrettable” but said the organisation’s failure to recruit a financially sustainable membership base left it “effectively an insolvent body” that the government could not continue to back.
- Supported the need for social work to have a “strong professional body” but said, in light of the college’s failure, this had to be developed from the grassroots rather than “top down” from government.
Asked about the government’s plans to introduce accreditation of children’s social workers, Timpson acknowledged the idea of being tested may have initially injected “a level of fear” into practitioners but said the results of a pilot of the assessments were promising.
“What we’ve seen through the 900 plus social workers that have been through the piloting phase is almost a realisation that they were more confident than they thought, but also they valued the opportunity to be able to reflect back on their own practice. That’s something I’ve heard again and again from social workers. They often don’t get the opportunity to do that.
“It’s also important to note that if you don’t get through the first time you will get another opportunity through being supported to enable yourself to meet the requisite standard.
“Having said all that I’m not going to be half baked in my determination to see high professional standards right across social work. The reason we’ve spent a long time testing this out with a high proportion of social workers is to get this right because it could be really powerful in ensuring we get high consistency of standards across the country.”