Will children’s centres reduce the number of children in care?

Will the launch of payment-by-results pilots at some children's centres, better protect and help at-risk children? Can it reduce pressure on children's services? Molly Garboden reports


Will the launch of payment-by-results pilots at some children’s centres, better protect and help at-risk children? Can it reduce pressure on children’s services? Molly Garboden reports

Most local authorities are still spending more on children’s centres than they are on other social care related early intervention – a fact that challenges recent negative publicity about such cuts. A Community Care investigation has found councils are spending 35% of their early intervention fund on children’s centres compared with 6% on parenting support and 1% on the social care workforce.

The government has stipulated that children’s centres should be more targeted on families in need. To support this principle, £3m is to be provided to centres to trial payment-by-results programmes. A major part of this work, the government explained, would involve aiming for “sustained contact with families in greatest need, so that children’s centres are targeting families most in need of their services effectively”.

But the families that need to be targeted are also those that are most difficult to reach. So how effective are children’s centres at reducing the number of children in care or on child protection plans?

Dave Hill, director of children’s services in Essex, admits the focus has been a challenge for children’s centres in his area.

“We’ve had huge success with programmes like Stay and Play. But, although it’s a great programme, it attracts the kinds of families who are going to make these connections anyway,” he says.

“My worry is that families who are going to have safeguarding concerns or whose children could be at risk of going into care or who have other complex problems are not using the centres in the way that they should and that impacts everything. If we better targeted those families, I’m confident we would have fewer children in care.”

Hill’s plan is to commission the third sector to run children’s centres in his area. He argues that, due to their extensive experience in this area, these organisations are better equipped to provide targeted intervention than council social workers or current children’s centre employees. Voluntary sector organisations have already put their names forward for the tender, he adds.

Charlene Edwards, head of service for the Coram-Ealing children’s centres outreach service, agrees, pointing out that services run by a voluntary organisation can remove some of the stigma associated with accessing social services.

“Part of our remit within the children’s centres is to get support to the families that are hardest to reach,” she says. “Those families aren’t going to be in the centres already, so we go out into antenatal and baby clinics and talk to pregnant women and new mothers. We tell them there’s a children’s centre just up the road if they need any help and tell them about any programmes or services we think they could benefit from.

“The services the centre provides are universal, and we tell people that. But the message is targeted at parents we see are in greatest need. That way, we’re reaching the people who need support the most but there’s no stigma attached and none of the fear associated with interacting with social services.”

Edwards adds that many child protection and domestic violence cases have been picked up in this way.

Louise Bamfield, assistant director of education, early years and children in care at Barnardo’s, says voluntary organisations’ experience working within restricted budgets is another key skill.

“While local authority children’s centres are experiencing cuts of 20-25% on average, Barnardo’s children’s centres were already running at low costs and are seeing average cuts of between 10% and 15%,” she says. “We know what it’s like to work with funding restraints and that’s made us good at targeting those who need our services most.”

Bamfield emphasises that the key to effective service provision is to maintain a highly qualified workforce within centres.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s run by a local authority or a charity. The quality of service at a children’s centre is down to the staff,” she says. “That’s an important area to focus on now, because it’s an area in a lot of danger of being cut. The most highly qualified and experienced staff are the most likely to be cut because they’re the most expensive.”

A way forward would be to embed social workers with child protection experience in every children’s centre. It is an idea promoted by Nushra Mansuri, joint England manager of the British Association of Social Workers.

“Their presence can make a tangible difference to practice, particularly around child protection, so we would strongly advocate that social workers are a necessary part of the personnel working in centres,” she says. “These should not be local authority social workers, but practitioners on-site who can focus on the families they see.”

Annie Yellowe-Palma, an independent social work consultant and mentor who has worked with multiple children’s centres to improve child protection services, agrees. But she says spending cuts could leave centre-based child protection professionals with extra work – and that would distract from their core purpose.

“Having a child protection social worker in a centre would help, but the role needs to be clear and protected,” she says. “In one centre I visited, the child protection manager also oversaw finance and the child protection social worker held local authority cases. How’s that going to promote the importance of child protection throughout the centre?

“A lot of them are collecting data that have no relevance to their area. In another centre I worked in, they were being asked how many disabled children they knew of in the borough. There’s no need to collect that data: there should be a designated social worker working in the local authority who would have all that data at their fingertips. It can’t come from the bottom up. Management needs to see it as a priority and allocate work accordingly.”

There is a fear that such disorganised box-ticking may spill into the payment-by-results pilots. Matt Dunkley, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, says centres must ensure they are measuring genuine outcomes that make a difference rather than focusing on procedures.

“People reward what’s easiest to measure rather than what makes the most difference,” he says. “It’s important to know how many people children’s centres are reaching. But you shouldn’t be rewarded for reach because that’s just a process – it doesn’t say anything about what the outcome of that reach was.

“While you need to know what access people have to a service, it’s important to know what difference the service is making when they access it. I wouldn’t want those kinds of process targets driving the payment-by-results pilots – it has to be about outcomes that improve the lives of children.”

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This article is published in the 18 August 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Can payment-by-results hit the target?”


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