Judy Cooper speaks to the new president of the Association of Directors for Children’s Services and her number two about the challenges ahead
Marion Davis is clearly frustrated. The source of this, according to the new president of the Association of Directors for Children’s Services (ADCS), is Ofsted and specifically “the disproportionate time” spent dealing with the regulator on unannounced inspections.
She refers to Ofsted’s recent announcement that the criteria used when judging an “area for priority action” in safeguarding will now only apply to situations that put children at significant risk. A council that receives an area for priority action will automatically be graded as “inadequate” in annual ratings of children’s services.
Although the issue was discussed in general terms between ADCS and Ofsted, there was not, Davis insists, any kind of detailed consultation on what the changes would mean to overall ratings and what evidence inspectors would use for their judgements.
“Sometimes it feels that progress has been made,” Davis says. “But when you get what happened with the changes to unannounced inspections” Her voice trails off with a sigh before she adds: “It feels we spend a disproportionate time dealing with these issues.”
The increasingly tense relationship between the two bodies is not the only issue likely to keep her busy this year. Children’s services also face the twin challenges of more referrals and fewer resources.
“We can’t deny that there’s a lot of pressure in the system, says Davis, who is also director of children’s services at Warwickshire Council. “But I don’t see things being at crisis point or in danger of imminent collapse. We are seeing the benefits of being five to six years into the Every Child Matters agenda and better working between agencies is a reality now. When you’re stretched for cash and resources you have to work together. That’s the only way you can achieve greater efficiency.”
Directors must ensure there is still money at the bottom of the pot for preventive work to halt the vicious spiral of increasing referrals, Davis says. This will mean taking “a cool look” at what works and making the difficult decisions to decommission those projects that do not deliver.
The Social Work Task Force is part of that preventive programme and she says all directors are signed up to its aims but “at this stage the resource level that has been committed is unlikely to stretch as far as we would like”.
She adds: “There is lively debate going on within authorities about priorities and resources [for social work supervision and training] in this area. If councils do prioritise child safeguarding these discussions have to take place.
“At the moment it’s a long-term goal, but I would be disappointed if it took the full 10 years to achieve it.”
Dunkley: ‘testing years ahead’
Matt Dunkley, the new ADCS vice-president and East Sussex children’s services director, believes the next few years ahead will be crucial.
“They will be a true test of our mettle both as a leadership organisation and as a young profession,” he says.
Not only is there likely to be a 20-30% decrease in resources in real terms between 2011 and 2014 but Dunkley believes the general election, no matter who wins, will signal a shift in political direction for children’s services.
“We’re going into the phase after The Children Act 2004 so there is bound to be a different policy framework,” he concedes.
Early predictions are that they will include a focus on intervention in the early years (ages 0-7) and universal and targeted services working more closely together.
Dunkley says the logic behind intervening early is irrefutable but points out that such intervention does not necessarily prevent children entering the care system unless the whole family is targeted.
He favours social workers working more closely with, and in, universal settings, including schools, children’s centres and GP surgeries where possible.
He says: “We’ve had some experience of this in East Sussex in secondary schools and children’s centres and we’ve found the social worker becomes the catalyst for better working between the universal and more targeted services. I would certainly hope to see more of it happening.”
This article is published in the 22 April issue of Community Care magazine under the heading “There is a lot of pressure in the system”