Now for the hard work

A preoccupation with restructuring and inconsistent policies are obscuring signs of progress with the Every Child Matters agenda, writes Bob Hudson

The huge changes triggered by the Every Child Matters reforms are well under way. At the latest count 141 of 150 local authorities have a director of children’s services in place and 75 per cent of local authorities will have a children’s trust in place this year, two years early.

In the case of children’s trusts, 35 pathfinder areas covering 20 per cent of the children of England have been operating for more than two years and have already been the subject of two evaluation reports.(1), (2)

If structural change is the sole measure of effectiveness then success is assured. But there is concern that a preoccupation with restructuring can be an unhelpful diversion. The reforms correctly focus on the five outcomes now enshrined in the Children Act 2004 – being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being.

Given the costs and problems associated with widespread structural change it could be argued that it should only have been considered where it was judged necessary to the delivery of local outcomes. But as it is inevitable, how can we measure its success? Perhaps the most obvious is that of better partnership working, strategically and operationally. The Victoria Climbie Inquiry highlighted the comprehensive failure of joint working among the key agencies – and the attempt to overcome fragmentation has been at the heart of the subsequent changes.

The key co-ordinating role has been assigned to the directors of children’s services who will be responsible for delivering on the five outcomes, and for co-ordinating services inside and outside the local authority. But they have no management remit over swathes of services, such as acute mental health, community health, schools, youth justice, Connexions, GPs and police. In these circumstances much will depend on the extent to which other agencies act on their duty of partnership under section 10 of the act, and we know little about how well this is working.

But what we do know is that schools are exempt from the duty to co-operate and show little enthusiasm for doing so. For example, the national evaluation of children’s trusts has reported that most schools do not plan to participate and that fewer than half of head teachers had even heard of children’s trusts.(2) Unless some sanctions and accountabilities are introduced, the danger is that directors of children’s services will end up in the classic dilemma of exercising responsibility without power – a recipe for policy chaos.

The links with the NHS will be especially important in delivering on the five outcomes but, although primary care trusts are subject to the section 10 duty, there are still grounds for concern. The national evaluation of children’s trusts has reported that, where NHS trusts have not separated adult and children’s services, and where budget deficits inhibit the pooling of resources, it has been difficult to build good partnership working with local authorities. These conclusions have been echoed by reports from the Every Child Matters regional change advisers.(3)

This difficulty will have been exacerbated by the pruning of primary care trusts from more than 300 to about 100, the growing financial deficits in the NHS and the switch to practice-based commissioning, with GPs also exempt from a duty to co-operate. The official line is still that the preferred model is the transfer of relevant budgets from the NHS into a pooled budget handled by a children’s trust arrangement, but there is no evidence that this is taking place. The regional change advisers report only 2 per cent of children’s services being commissioned jointly in “mature” partnerships.

However, it is not just external partnerships that are challenging. There is also the matter of the relationship between education services and social care services in the new children’s services authorities. Accurate figures are not available, but it is clear that most children’s services directors have come from an education rather than a social care background. This has fuelled concerns about losing important skills and the danger that social care concerns will take a lower priority than those of schooling and education.

The separation of children’s social care budgets from those of adult social care exposed the underfunding of children’s social care, and the extent to which it had been subsidised by adult care. There will be no such transfer within children’s services where the budgets of individual schools are protected and spent by school governing bodies.

The distinction that the government seems to be making between children’s services and education services is perhaps the greatest challenge that lies ahead for children’s services authorities and children’s trusts. There is nothing inherently wrong in having two policy strands on schools and children’s services, but the worry is that the relationship between the two does not seem to have been thought out – a situation reflected in the allegedly poor relations between the schools directorate and the children, young people and families directorate within the Department for Education and Skills.

In terms of political priorities there is little doubt that the schools standards agenda will triumph over the Every Child Matters agenda – it is difficult to imagine the Blair era ending over evidence of poor joint working in children’s services.

Schools and schooling are crucial pieces in the Every Child Matters jigsaw, but the emphasis in the Education and Inspections Bill is on the autonomy of schools, including the encouragement of academy status, with a reduction in the role of children’s services. Changes to children’s services, on the other hand, focus on an area-wide arrangement of services delivered through partnership arrangements often centred operationally on extended schools.

The worry here is that the increasingly autonomous schools with a catchment area well beyond their immediate vicinity will decide that their future hinges on a good standing in academic league tables, and that the broader Every Child Matters outcomes are somebody else’s responsibility. For example, there is no requirement for a city academy, 200 of which are planned by 2010, to be named in the statement of a child with special educational needs, and the House of Commons education and skills select committee has expressed its concern about inequitable admissions policies in this respect.(4)

The government has not made the task any easier for new roles and structures in children’s services by pursuing inconsistent policies in education, health and elsewhere, and has compounded the problem by failing to extend a duty to co-operate to all partners.

The glue that holds everything together is the five outcomes in the lives of children and young people and, where the commitment of some agencies is uncertain, much will rest upon the ways in which they are judged and ranked by monitoring and inspection bodies.

The new integrated inspection framework, jointly owned by the Commission for Social Care Inspection, Ofsted, the Healthcare Commission and Audit Commission, will be crucial in this respect, as will the effectiveness of the new children’s services planning system.

The government deserves much credit for developing the Every Child Matters agenda but, having willed the ends, it must also will the means. As with the adult services agenda, there is a concern that it has not yet managed to reconcile the imperatives of competition and choice with those of collaboration and planning.

Structural change is not necessarily wasteful or unnecessary, but it will be some time before we can judge the value of the current structural upheaval. 

Bob Hudson is visiting professor of partnership studies at the school of applied social sciences, University of Durham. He is also an adviser on partnership and integration issues to the House of Commons education and skills select committee.

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The restructuring of children’s services is now under way and ahead of schedule, but there is concern that a preoccupation with restructuring can be an unhelpful diversion from service delivery. This article identifies several challenges that lie ahead, including the role of directors of children’s services, links with the NHS and tension with the school standards agenda. It concludes that the government has not yet resolved the tension between policies based on choice and competition, and those based on partnership and strategic planning.

(1) Children’s Trusts: Developing Integrated Services for Children in England, University of East Anglia, 2004
(2) Realising Children’s Trust Arrangements, University of East Anglia, 2005
(3) Local Progress Towards Children’s Trusts: Feedback from Regional Change Advisers, 2005. From
(4) Education and Skills Committee, The Schools White Paper: Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, The Stationery Office, 2006

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