When the government announced last month that Doncaster’s children’s services were to be outsourced to an independent trust, nobody in the sector was particularly surprised.
In fact, the move was widely predicted as soon as Professor Julian Le Grand – a health economist who favours more competition among public services – was asked to head up a review on possible ways forward for the local authority.
Nor is there much surprise that the government is rumoured to be considering a similar strategy in Birmingham, following the departure of its director of children’s services.
After all, when it comes to children’s services, Doncaster and Birmingham have been called “troubled councils” for decades. This is despite years of government intervention and a succession of interim management teams who have tried to turn things around.
Are radical solutions inevitable?
David Simmonds, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, agrees ministers have no choice but to consider radical solutions in the face of such stubborn resistance to improvement.
However, radical solutions come with high risks. “The risk here is that outsourcing children’s services, and essentially removing it from the direct accountability within a council, might simply exacerbate the problems,” Simmonds explains.
The model itself is not new. Under the past Labour government, a number of councils were forced to outsource the management of their education services to private companies. The Isle of Wight has done it voluntarily, asking Hampshire council to take over all of their children’s services.
“The advantage is that it creates the opportunity to try new and different approaches to problems that were not possible within the structure before. In places like Hackney, with its Learning Trust [responsible for managing education], it allowed them to transform the service,” Simmonds says.
“But the problem is that sometimes the increased freedom merely allows a service to create increased dissatisfaction among service users.”
Is voluntary outsourcing best?
Simmonds believes the model works best when a council voluntarily decides it is the right way forward. It has yet to be tested when it is imposed upon a council.
The ambitious timetable set in Doncaster is likely to increase risk, says Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers. “It’s such a radical solution and yet they want it completely transferred into a trust by next April,” she says.
“We know from experience that transferring 700 plus staff under TUPE to a new organisation comes with massive upheaval, fear and instability for social workers. I worry that doing it so quickly will simply put children more at risk than they are now.”
A challenge the review team appears to have glazed over, Mansuri adds, is the shortage of experienced and skilled children’s social workers willing to work for Doncaster.
Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, says the break with a direct line of accountability to a council will also make partnership working more difficult, although Simmonds believes this can be managed with strong leadership from the local safeguarding children board.
Will Birmingham be next?
A Department for Education spokesperson refused to confirm or deny whether Birmingham’s children’s services are at risk of forced outsourcing, stating: “We will not be providing a running commentary on Birmingham”. But the challenges are likely to be magnified because of its sheer size as the largest metropolitan council in Europe.
The government cannot afford to “wait and see” how the model performs in Doncaster before taking action in Birmingham. “But I would argue the government needs to develop such radical solutions in partnership with the council and not impose it as a matter of course whenever a council is deemed to be persistently failing.”
A senior manager in children’s services, who prefers not to be named, argues that Birmingham should be broken up into smaller unitary authorities, but doubts the government would ever do so for political reasons.
His concern about removing children’s services altogether from a council is that it is often accompanied by a lack of financial scrutiny and control.
A move away from Munro?
“We’ve seen it in America where this model has been trialled,” says the manager. “Often the arm’s length organisation ‘goes bust’ and as failures and deaths mount up, the public demands they be brought back under public control.”
Much depends on the amount of funding the independent trust in Doncaster will have to achieve its goals, but so far the government has remained silent on this issue.
Aside from such nitty-gritty challenges facing the wholesale outsourcing of children’s services, Mansuri believes there is a larger philosophical issue at stake.
“Government solutions to social work problems like this seem to be more and more punitive and accompanied by less and less trust. I can’t help feeling we seem to be getting further away from Munro with such decisions,” she adds.
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Doncaster children’s services outsourced for five years after damning review