Matt Dunkley says he is taking over as president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services at an “interesting” time.
The next year will see the deepest council budget cuts in decades coinciding with a growing wave of children coming into the care system. On top of that massive reforms are being implemented in health and education, as well as in child protection and the family justice system.
“If I wasn’t energised by doing difficult and tricky things I would not be doing this job, so I’m not looking for an easy ride…which is lucky because I don’t think I’ll get it,” he laughs ruefully.
Yet, he maintains that it is not his role to “whinge” about the cuts or oppose them, as some have called on directors to do.
“ADCS is a professional leadership organisation, not a trade union. We have to respect that less than a year ago this government was given an elected mandate to reduce the deficit.
“It’s up to us to try and work with any government of the day on implementation, and offer a professional view of the challenges. What I will be pushing for is a transparent and honest debate about the consequences of decisions. That’s why we’ve focused on the problems associated with the front-loading of the cuts, which is a managerial issue, not a political issue. Likewise with our focus on some of the shifting ground around the early intervention grant.”
So far he says most councils are doing their best to protect vulnerable children, including disabled children and children in care, from the impact of budget cuts.
“I actually think that over the next year there may be more social workers in children’s services, not fewer. The real worry is how we keep pace with the rising demand. We have to start looking closely at how services are dealing with children on the edge of care.”
While the government has set its store on early intervention and payment by results, “we need to remember we’re looking at anything up to 20 to 25 years for payback on some of these services, not one to two years,” Dunkley says.
“Early intervention matters and it does pay for itself over time but we now have much less money to do it. So we need to get the balance right between spending on altering adult behaviour that damages a child and mitigating damage that has already happened to a child. We have to do both, but there’s a balance to be struck.
“I think it’s about working with parents who experience difficulties to make them better parents. That means investing in things like intensive family nurse partnerships and family intervention projects because we have evidence they work.”
Much also depends on the Family Justice Review and the Munro Review of child protection which he believes have set out a good direction of travel. “But, in order for these very good ideas to be implemented there are huge workforce issues, as well as organisational and development issues, and I think part of the next stages of both reviews will hopefully be about working some of those issues out.”
Directors will not shy away from the challenges of implementation, he insists. If everyone agrees there is a need for more critically reflective social workers, for example, and this cannot be done without a lot of training and reducing case loads, then that is a problem directors have to solve, he says matter-of-factly.
Dunkley is wary when the current government consultation on councils’ statutory duties is brought up and the opportunities it gives councils, such as Suffolk and Bury, that are looking to outsource everything including child protection.
“We are currently working on our position on statutory duties. What I would say is that we need to proceed with extreme caution before we think about dismantling statutory duties such as section 47. I would always want councils to have the freedom to try different models of delivery but we need to be cautious.”
He agrees the current budget landscape will mean that councils will be looking to place children in-house wherever possible rather than utilising the private sector. But he dismisses claims councils are withdrawing damaged children from therapeutic children’s homes and placing them with ill-equipped foster carers to make cost savings, pointing out that it is in no-one’s interest for a child’s placement to break down.
“Councils are starting to develop increasingly specialised foster care placements and there is a trend away from residential care but I think there are still opportunities there, particularly around social pedagogy. Ultimately, the number of children coming into care is going up and will continue to do so for the next few years. We need to be working with the sector so that agencies are filling the gaps, not competing with council services.”
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