Surrey: Pioneer or oddity?

Last month Surrey Council announced plans to reintegrate its children’s and adults’ services to form a new families’ directorate. This followed its move in 2001 to merge education with children’s social care and spilt off adults’ services. Surrey is bucking the trend as most other local authorities are separating out their children’s and adults’ services. Its decision to re-merge the two services seems more in line with Lord Seebohm’s 1968 recommendation for unified social services departments rather than the policy agenda of today. Anabel Unity Sale asks experienced social care professionals what they think of Surrey’s decision

Roy Taylor, director of community services, Kingston Council
Kingston Council, in south west London, borders Surrey. Roy Taylor has overseen its social services department for 15 years and last April merged children’s social care with education. The benefits have been enormous, he says, but to reap them took a huge effort. However, he does wonder whether Surrey’s plan could result in job losses and budget cuts as it disentangles what it has built up over the past five years.

“I know what an upheaval of this magnitude can do to staff, especially at a time of uncertainty,” Taylor says.

Moving towards the Every Child Matters agenda was “like drawing teeth” for local authorities, he says. Although he thinks it would have been possible to achieve its aims without splitting children’s and adults’ services, he understands why the government has pushed for the separation.

So are other local authorities likely to emulate Surrey? Taylor is not convinced. “So many results predicted by Every Child Matters are right in the mix of education and children’s social care. It seems that Surrey is turning the aeroplane around and flying against the wind.”
Heather Schroeder, director of children, schools and families, Camden Council
Heather Schroeder is better placed than most to comment on Surrey’s plans. Before being seconded to Camden Council – where she has been permanently since September 2004 – she was an area director in Surrey for several years.

She says that, because Surrey has had separate children’s and adults’ services for five years longer than most other authorities, this may help to explain its decision to re-integrate. But whatever structures a local authority has in place, new boundaries are created and the trick is to be able to work across them. “No child exists in isolation from adults and you have to make your services work for them all.”

Schroeder does not believe that restructuring, in itself, solves anything. “If you look at the reviews into tragedies, which is what Every Child Matters is about, the lessons aren’t about structure but about communication and that is what we have to concentrate on.”

Since becoming a social worker in 1971 she has learned that “what goes around comes around”. However, she says other councils will be hesitant to follow Surrey’s footsteps as structural change takes “a lot of time, energy, money and resources”.

Anthony Douglas, chief executive, Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service
Anthony Douglas has experience of watching one organisation grow from the amalgamation of others, as Cafcass was formed from 117 services in April 2001. He says the energy, excitement and leadership of a service is more important than its structure – and that this is what Surrey will need to consider.

Is Surrey’s decision a step back to the halcyon days when social services departments were first established? National consistency may be desirable, but “good local outcomes matter more”, Douglas says. He adds that  Surrey’s move is an example of how joint-working between children’s and adults’ services is central to helping families.

Douglas dispels fears that an integrated service will result in the needs of adults being usurped by children and education. “When I started as a social worker in 1975 services for older people were an afterthought but nowadays services are of a much more equal status.”

Some local authorities, he believes, may mimic Surrey’s move as the sector experiments with finding the best model for service users.

“The tension is how to deliver traditional social services through mainstream services when they still remain stubbornly separate because of the nature of the problems social workers deal with.”

Sir William Utting, chair of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
If there is one person in social care who has seen it all it is Sir William Utting. A former social worker, he held senior posts in the probation service and social services and was the first chief inspector of social services at the Department of Health.

Given that Surrey has experience of operating its social services from one department and from separate directorates he says it is well-placed to decide what is best for local residents. “I don’t believe one size fits all local requirements in a country this big. You can recommend a national pattern but it ought to be adaptable to local circumstances.”

Before a local authority with separate services follows Surrey’s footsteps and re-unites them, Utting says it should look at its record of dealing with children with special educational needs and looked-after children. “It is about how professionals deal with potentially disadvantaged children.”

And he warns that, should adults’ services be re-integrated, the change could result in them becoming “a Cinderella service”, just as they did when the first social services departments were created in the 1970s.

Christine Walby, Independent consultant
Christine Walby entered social work in the mid-1960s in a children’s department and experienced its transition into a social services department in the 1970s. One thing she learned during her 30-year career in social work is that the structure of a service does not dictate its quality. “Structures in themselves don’t make for a good service. It depends on how they are organised and managed, although a good structure can facilitate good services.”

For her, the key ingredient for any organisation undergoing a change like Surrey is good professional leadership. “Staff need to be confident that managers understand the nature of their work.”

She understands why Surrey is choosing to form a family service, given the common elements involved in working with children and their parents. “The issue of looking at a family in a more co-ordinated way can be facilitated by having a single department but also by making sure staff understand each other’s roles and work together.”

 This lack of understanding is something she says the Seebohm-inspired restructure highlighted. Although children’s services staff supported working with their adults’ services counterparts, the chief officers did not grasp the nature of the work they had previously done and were not interested in it. She adds: “When there is a major restructure services are vulnerable to managers taking their eye off the ball.”


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