Innovative partnership turns around children’s services in Stoke

Feature p18 13 March issueIn March 2007, the government and Stoke-on-Trent Council made history by announcing that a partnership led by private consultancy Serco had been awarded a contract to run the local authority’s children and young people’s services for the following three years.

While there have been government-ordered interventions in failing council services before, the Stoke-on-Trent arrangement is the first to both cover a council’s children’s services in its entirety and to involve a partnership between the private and voluntary sectors.

As Elaine Simpson, managing director for Serco’s education and children’s services, explains: “We needed to up our game and capacity in terms of the children’s social care agenda [for this contract]. So we sought partnership and recruited additional people. I particularly felt partnership with the voluntary sector was very important. They have a depth of understanding that is crucial, and we couldn’t have done this without them.”

The voluntary sector partner in this arrangement is Shaftesbury Young People, which in turn worked with fostering agency Tact. Serco asked the two to look at the council’s services for children in care (see The Voluntary Sector’s Role), while private consultancy Care and Health was asked to look at safeguarding. Both services had come in for heavy criticism in the council’s 2006 performance assessment, in which Stoke-on-Trent’s children’s services were labelled “inadequate” before being made subject to government intervention.

Serco’s first task was to make good on its promise to the Department for Children, Schools and Families to recruit a new senior management team with current experience to lead the change process.

Kath O’Dwyer is one-fifth of that new senior management team. As deputy director responsible for children’s social care, she reports to new director of children’s services Ged Rowney and works alongside three other deputy directors – two with responsibility for different aspects of education and one leading on planning and commissioning.

O’Dwyer has more than 20 years’ experience in children’s social care, and came to Stoke in June from Halton Council, Lancashire, which she also joined after a poor inspection and spent five and a half years helping to turn around. She predicts that it will take up to five years to deliver top performance at Stoke too, but says she is already seeing the “green shoots” of change in the first nine months.

“There has been a lack of investment in training,” she says. “But there are some very committed staff here, and they are very much part of the solution. It is up to us to give them the tools and structure to allow them to do their jobs effectively.”

Dedicated services

O’Dwyer explains that service delivery arrangements have already been reorganised in social care, with dedicated services for children in care and children in need replacing a generic children’s service.

“We asked staff and partners what they thought was broken and how they thought we should fix it,” she says. “We had a helpful response, which we combined with our understanding and analysis, together with the inspection data, to put together a plan for a new structure in October. This went out to consultation and was then implemented in January.

“It’s bedding in quicker than I thought it would,” she adds. “For the staff who have been here throughout, they are just delighted to have some clarity. We have also invested heavily in training and produced comprehensive policies and procedures.”

Feature p18 13 March issueFor Simpson, however, change could have been achieved quicker and more effectively if staff had been transferred to Serco rather than remaining in the employment of the council. “Where people have become Serco staff elsewhere, we have discussed change with them and the unions and got on with it,” she says. “But there has been lots of resistance to change on social care in Stoke, with people saying ‘we don’t do it that way’. But if you do what you’ve always done, you get what you have always got.”

By contrast, Simpson has nothing but praise for the local political leadership in Stoke. “The elected mayor, the chief executive, the cabinet have all recognised that things had to change,” she says.

But this has not always been the case. Ian McLaughlan, portfolio holder for children’s services at Stoke-on-Trent Council, explains that until recently Stoke’s elected mayor and chief executive were responsible for all decisions made in the council. As a result, councillors felt disenfranchised, in-fighting was rife, and service managers were left to run their own departments with little scrutiny.

The arrival of a new mayor about 18 months ago heralded change, thanks to his decision to implement a cabinet-style system by delegating his powers to a team of elected members. This coincided with an agreement among councillors to set aside their differences after local elections resulted in no majority party.

Model for the future

“If there hadn’t been a change in political culture, the new management team would have struggled,” McLaughlan says. “This has had to be a real partnership in every sense.”

Although the DCSF refuses to be drawn on whether the Stoke arrangement is likely to be replicated elsewhere, one year on it certainly has the backing of all the other parties involved as a model for the future for turning around failing children’s services.

Rowney believes the partnership arrangement gives the intervention team real credibility and expertise. “We can bring in support, and have project contracts that can bring in advice, information and skills that complement what’s already here.”

Tact chief executive Kevin Williams agrees that his charity brings something special: “Our approach to young people is creative. We are involved in participation, and we can add value from the lessons we learn from young people in our other work.” Tact also brings a particular perspective to the commissioning work stream, Williams says. “We work with about 60 local authorities so have experienced a range of practice. We can share what works well for them and for providers.”

Shaftesbury’s involvement in Stoke may end in May, but development director Chris Carey is confident the arrangement is only the start of things. “I can feel a trend of more partnerships between the voluntary, private and statutory sectors,” he predicts.

“We have no problem with that if it’s about working together to bring about improvements in quality.”

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