By Jonathan Stanley, chief executive of the Independent Children’s Homes Association
The recent report from the National Audit Office accurately portrays the current condition of our children’s services. Coming at the end of a parliament, it focused on what one member of the committee called ‘value for kids’. It is a report card on the government’s work for looked-after children. It tells the incoming government exactly what they will be inheriting.
The elephant in the committee room was that this ought not to have been a public interrogation of civil servants who are only ever carrying out the wishes of their politicians. As parliament will soon rise it was by proxy the last chance to hold the government to account for the current situation. Like Joshua and Jericho, time and again it was raised – accurate data on needs and a strategy to deliver improvements is absent.
The defensiveness from the Department for Education (DfE) was perplexing. The report showed more needs to be done. The Public Accounts Committee was an opportunity to share the lines of development national and local government have for the future.
Through its clear analysis, the NAO report assists our senior DfE officials and directors of children’s services with an understanding of their enmeshed, entangled present. Their wisdom could be part of a different future for looked-after children.
For three years providers and practitioners have been unstinting in feeding their knowledge and experience into the reforms for children’s services. We came to hear inspiration and experience confidence in direction, but left with expectation diminished and clear evidence of the confusion that results from government’s centralisation of legislation, regulation and innovation.
Straying from role
One example was to hear Ofsted is running best practice sessions for local authorities when their role is to regulate. Such straying from role and task leads to accountability being lost in a fog of dispersed rather than task-directed activity.
Government was not decisive about who should do what with various data. Where there could be creative dialogue through correctly deployed roles and tasks what we have is deadening centralisation, and compliance presented as creativity.
Practitioner and provider valuable inputs are being wasted, they are doing their best for looked-after children, in spite of, not because of, policy. Providers and practitioners’ commitment to the best practice is shared informally, for example through the vibrant collective working together by the memberships of provider and practitioner organisations.
But this is just masking reality. Indeed, one committee member saw the NAO report as ‘generous’ to DfE officials.
Lack of funding is a factor, but this comes from a fundamental failure of government to take up and lead corporate parenting responsibilities across its agencies. It sees looked-after children in terms of financial costs rather than investment in futures.
If cash is tight then with a needs-led strategy we can do the very best with what we have.
Worryingly, in but a few weeks the politicians will not be there and this could be the situation we inherit and inhabit until they sort themselves out – perhaps into the next coalition and this might take much longer than previously: weeks, maybe months.
We should not wait. Those doing the work should take the space of this interregnum to boldly construct the national consensus that is currently absent. Those who have parenting responsibilities must melt the different ways of seeing the issues before us.
We have trust to establish and a child’s world to create. It is important work that we have been delayed from achieving for too long.