David Cameron has announced an acceleration of plans to tackle failing children’s services which will make it easier for them to be removed from direct local authority control.
The “landmark” reforms, which he claimed were comparable to the government’s changes to education under the Academies programme, will stop the government standing by “while children are let down by inadequate social services”, he said. He revealed plans for another children’s services department, at Sunderland council, to move into a children’s trust model.
Children’s services that have persistently failed in the past will be taken over immediately by high-performing local authorities, experts in child protection and charities, Cameron announced. This transformation could include these partners acting as sponsors, or forming ‘trusts’, like those in Doncaster or Slough, to take over authorities.
The government announced that Sunderland, which received an ‘inadequate’ judgment from Ofsted in July, will become a voluntary trust established by the chief executive of Achieving for Children, the community interest company that runs children’s services in Richmond and Kingston. New service leaders will also be appointed in Norfolk and Sandwell to tackle failings.
A government statement said: “In the past, children’s services were taken over on an ad hoc basis with no clear national response to failure. For the first time, a formalised academy-style system will be put in place so that any local authority judged as inadequate by Ofsted has to show significant improvement within six months or be taken over.”
Under the plans, if a children’s services has failed to improve, a children’s commissioner will be appointed and high-performing local authorities, experts in child protection and charities will be brought in.
There will be “sharper triggers”, the government said, so that an emergency inspection can be ordered where there are concerns. This could include complaints from whistle-blowers or evidence of poor leadership.
Cameron said: “Children’s services support the most vulnerable children in our society. They are in our care; we, the state, are their parents; and we are failing them. It is our duty to put this right; to say to poorly performing local authorities: improve, or be taken over. We will not stand by while children are let down by inadequate social services.”
He added: “This will be one of the big landmark reforms of this Parliament, as transformative as what we did in education in the last. And it shows how serious we are about confronting state failure and tackling some the biggest social problems in our country. Together we will make sure that not a single child is left behind.”
One critic, however, compared the plans to a “deckchair re-arrangement on a fleet of torpedoed ships”.
Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England, said that, after the recent spending review failed to mention child protection and children in care, “changing the management structure without addressing the systemic inadequacy of budgets to meet rapidly increasing levels of children’s needs is an irresponsible political move that will leave early intervention abandoned and essential staff stressed and demoralised”.
The chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler, said the announcement showed how the landscape for child and family social work “is changing fast”.
“It is imperative that we, as a profession, step up to the mark and play a leading role in its design and delivery.”
Other measures announced today were expansions of the Frontline and Step Up to Social Work training programmes, a drive to recruit new trust sponsors from the charity sector, an urgent review of local safeguarding children boards, and a new ‘What Works Centre’ for social workers to learn from the best practice in the country. The government will also work with six high-performing local authorities on how to give academy-style freedoms to high performers.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan said the government wanted to see excellent child and family social work at the heart of child protection.
“We are creating new partnerships which will see experts working hand in hand to raise standards in struggling local authorities, we’re investing more to ensure the best and the brightest get into frontline social work and we’re driving innovation across the system so that every child has the best possible start in life,” she said.
Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of the charity Action for Children, welcomed the proposals: “Partnerships are the way forward and any partnership under these proposals will need appropriate safeguards and an understanding of what works for children. Working with local authorities, charities with relevant expertise are well placed to provide innovative solutions at a time of increasing need and reduced resources.”