Achieving for Children is the “future model for children’s services”, according to its billing at this week’s National Children and Adults Services Conference (NCASC).
However, Nick Whitfield, the chief executive of the company that from April took charge of delivering children’s services in Richmond and Kingston, is quick to clarify the claim. “The talk is about possibilities in the future, it’s not about ‘we are the idea of the future’,” he says. “When you look at what Colin Hilton says he will say things that will be different because they’ve got different needs and they are doing things in a slightly different way.”
Nick, who is also director of children’s services at Richmond and Kingston, will be sharing the conference stage with Colin, the chair of Doncaster’s new independent children’s trust. His talk promises to give social workers a closer look at two local authorities who, both by choice and not by choice, are leading the way for alternative ways of providing children’s services.
Achieving for Children is the first venture of its kind in children’s social care: a community interest company (CIC) owned by Richmond and Kingston councils, both of which commission their children’s services from it.
Nick says that Richmond and Kingston could have opted for joint delivery of children’s services in a bid to save money but both wanted to remain commissioning councils. And by creating Achieving for Children both councils have avoiding the organisational difficulties associated with joint service delivery, such as deciding which authority staff are employed by.
There are three key traits that make Achieving for Children different, says Nick. The first is that it is an employer in its own right, which enables it to unify how work of staff in the two authorities. That, he says, gives staff “proper opportunities for development and improvement across both boroughs”.
Secondly, because Achieving for Children, which began work in April, is a CIC all the money that goes into it is focused on children and carers.
“It can’t be hived off, it can’t be used as profit by anybody, it can’t be taken away,” says Nick. “It’s called asset locked so that money is absolutely focused on the residents.”
The third and final trait is that the company can seek contracts for work that augments their their existing activities. Nick says that helps it create partnerships that develop its infrastructure, such as working with charities to create extra capacity and to provide services in different ways.
While there is “definitely a sense of innovation” at Achieving for Children, Nick remains a believer in local solutions.
“I really believe in localism,” he says. “I think some other people will explore this and say, ‘Yeah, wow! This could be a method that could work for us as well’. But, it’s not for everybody. It’s not just a one size fits all.”
But there are advantages to working across local authority boundaries, he adds. Being an independent company means Achieving for Children avoids the problems that often exist when two councils, each with a different political makeup and culture, come together.
“We’re not having to jump through hoops, saying: ‘Is this what Kingston wants to do? Is this what Richmond wants to do?” he says. “We are the organisation that provides the services for them and that freedom does free up some space for innovation.”
One result of that innovation is that the company is trying to make the working environment for its staff “much more of an open space”.
“We are creating opportunities where some of our staff are saying, ‘It would be great if we could do things differently’ and we’re looking at those ideas to see whether there are things that we can do that make the work of our frontline workers better and more effective.”