Nestled between a sports shop and tattoo studio on Doncaster High Street is a blue building that’s home to one of the most significant children’s services departments in the country.
The office, which fits seamlessly with the shops around it, is home to the first independent children’s trust in England to take over children’s services from a local authority. The site is far removed from any council buildings – a deliberate move to represent the organisation’s independence.
The independent trust model is favoured by government because it offers a break from any historic failure, and it is argued that the specific focus on children’s services in an independent organisation cuts bureaucracy and encourages innovation. The children’s trust is commissioned by the council to deliver services, and will do so for a minimum of five years.
While Doncaster was the first to become a trust in 2014, David Cameron has already signalled intentions to take more children’s services down a similar path. In December 2015 he told services to improve or face being taken over. Slough’s children’s services entered trust control last year, and commissioners have been appointed in Norfolk and Sandwell after ‘inadequate’ Ofsted ratings.
It was also recently announced that Sunderland’s children’s services would transfer to a new voluntary trust.
A model for children’s services that didn’t exist three years ago is, therefore, becoming the default for government improvement, but these moves have not been without controversy. When David Cameron outlined his intentions for the government to intervene in more failing children’s services, The British Association of Social Workers criticised the move as an “ideological” attack that would limit local accountability.
Social workers in Sandwell, where a government-appointed commissioner is currently overseeing improvements, threatened industrial action if a decision is made to move the council’s children’s services into a trust.
As the flagship of the government’s children’s social care reforms, Doncaster trust’s employees have become used to operating under close observation from the sector.
“It does feel like there is an intense amount of scrutiny,” says Richard Fawcett, the trust’s head of service for its northern area, who also reflects that just the day before I visited, representatives from the Department for Education had been there.
“We are always on show, and I would imagine there are a lot of people that are waiting for the trust to fail… It is politicised, but children’s social care wherever you work is highly politicised.”
‘Not a punishment’
At the time the trust was announced, Fawcett says it was “dramatic and controversial”, but he felt a lot of local authorities were looking at Doncaster and thinking they could be going down a similar route.
“Lots of places were, and still are, experiencing a lot of challenges in terms of the quality of their safeguarding services. I suppose for me at that point it looked like an opportunity rather than a risk. I didn’t perceive it as a punishment to Doncaster, it very much appeared to be ‘let’s try something different, the old way hasn’t worked so let’s try something completely different’.”
Jackie Wilson, director of transformation, says trusts are “much more controversial when you’re outside of them than when you’re in them”.
She wants people to see the difference that has been made since it took over Doncaster’s notoriously troubled children’s services, “then [they can] still engage in the wider ideological debate from a much more informed position.
We do the job that social workers do, but boy we’re doing it a lot better now.”
So how are services performing under the trust model? An annual report to education secretary Nicky Morgan, produced by the trust and Doncaster council, declared that children’s services were improving. It said that the re-referral rate to its front door response and referral service fell by 15% over the trust’s first 12 months. The number of children and young people becoming subject to a child protection plan has also fallen, and so has the number of children experiencing three or more moves in care. An Ofsted inspection in November also identified a range of improvements. Adoption services were rated as ‘good’, but the services for children in need of help and protection were still ‘inadequate’.
Paul Moffat, the trust’s chief executive, says the Ofsted findings “confirmed what we already knew”.
As part of taking on the services, the trust set itself ambitious targets. It aims to be ‘requires improvement’ standard by April this year, ‘good’ by October 2017 and ‘outstanding’ by October 2019.
“The proof will be in the pudding over the next 18 months to two years. [We need] to see if there is sustained improvement, and [whether] the trust model itself is something which could be applied elsewhere. Changing the leadership team doesn’t necessarily lead to improvements,” Moffat says.
The history of children’s services in Doncaster is well known. In 2009, the government began supervising services after seven children died because of abuse or neglect over five years. Later that year, a serious case review found that the torture of two young boys in nearby Edlington was “preventable”. From 2005 to 2013, Ofsted found a series of problems in the council and rated it ‘inadequate’. This culminated in a report by Julian Le Grand, Alan Wood and Moira Gibb which recommended the services should be taken over by an independent children’s trust.
So why did Doncaster need to be a trust? Could the improvements not have just been made by changes at the local authority?
‘It’s all about the trust’
Moffat says structural changes were required, and that a trust offers advantages of focus that a service in a council does not.
Fawcett joined the trust in April last year after spending 20 years in the same local authority. He immediately noticed the differences.
“Previously, as a senior manager in a local authority, I would go to occasional corporate meetings and I would be sitting alongside counterparts in adult services, people who dealt with refuse collection etc,” he says.
“There are some benefits there, but here corporate has a very different meaning because it is all about the trust, it’s all about children’s social care. For me, sitting in The Blue Building, sitting alongside the performance people, the head of finance, head of HR – they don’t have to deal with anything other than the trust.”
He adds: “It just feels much more streamlined here, and clearly that doesn’t mean that the trust can just decide something at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning and be doing it by 5 o’clock. There are still lots of considerations, but overall it’s much faster.”
Moffat agrees: “There’s flexibility and responsiveness, and that’s what the staff are talking about experiencing, which helps them be able to do the things they want to do, especially if they are recruiting.”
Moffat says there was no widespread opposition to the trust from frontline social workers, like has been seen recently in Sandwell. He points towards a recent anonymised survey of staff members, carried out externally, which found 73% were very or quite happy at the trust.
In its annual report, the trust says that the proportion of frontline staff who are agency has fallen from 18% to 10%, and turnover rates have fallen 9% in the trust’s full first year. In some cases, say Moffat and Wilson, agency staff have decided to join the trust full time.
“I think many people saw the trust as a new dawn that has drawn the line with the past,” adds Moffat.
The trust has also received backing from the Department for Education’s innovation fund, which staff have reported is a source of pride for them. The trust is involved with four innovation projects – Growing Futures, the Pause project, Mockingbird, and Empower and Protect. These initiatives are backed, in Doncaster, by £5 million.
Innovation projects in Doncaster
Growing Futures – A project focusing on young people in domestic abuse situations, helping them find new ways to keep safe and recover. It is a long-term way of working together as partners with families, not just protecting them.
Mockingbird – A hub model of fostering where ‘hub carers’ offer respite care and support to groups of foster families nearby.
Pause – Works with women who have experienced, or are at risk of, repeat removals of children from their care. It aims to break the cycle.
Empower and Protect – A joint approach to support 13- to 17-year-olds who are at risk of sexual exploitation across South Yorkshire. This involves training specialist foster carers to help support the young people to thrive.
Fawcett concedes that the impact of a trust may be more noticeable for senior managers, but insists this filters down to the frontline. He says social workers tell him the learning and development offer has improved since the trust takeover.
“I think a reason for that is because our workforce development team only have a children’s social care workforce to consider,” he says.
“As a result things are much more focused, condensed and it all comes round to things being there for the same purpose.”
With child protection and children’s social work being identified as a major area for government reform over the next four years, it is unlikely the discussion about trusts will cease. The fate of Doncaster is likely to be watched closely.
“Our massive focus is ‘by your work shall you be known’,” says Wilson, who adds that it is by demonstrating impact that the trust will begin to shape people’s perceptions.
For Moffat, the important issue is how the young people the trust works with perceive the service: “What they want is high quality services. If they come into care, or if they have to have support from the trust, the council and others, they just want it to be a good experience. I think they are less ideological than many others.
“Let’s just concentrate on making our services as [good] as they can be and the rest will take care of itself.”