What do the government’s innovation plans tell us about the future of children’s services?

The government points towards how some of its new innovations will be a blueprint for the future of children's services

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What will children’s services look like after the government’s reforms? A document published last week to announce the expansion of the children’s social care innovation fund offers some clues.

The original innovation fund, which ran from 2014 to 2015, saw the Department for Education (DfE) spend £110m on 53 projects across England. Last week’s announcement confirmed that the fund will be extended and run until 2020, with an additional £200m investment for children’s services.

The government says this new wave of funding will be used to back new projects and scale up previous innovations. This, it says, will allow local authorities to be “more ambitious about their growth strategy” and help other local authorities, trusts, private or voluntary organisations “to adopt or adapt promising innovations developed by others”.

The DfE’s briefing points towards some of the innovation fund programmes providing a blueprint for the future of children’s services. The report picks out two main areas of focus – rethinking children’s social care and rethinking transitions to adulthood. Initiatives in these areas, the DfE says, will “underpin our objectives for 2016-18 and are likely to be the basis from which we build thereafter”.

So what does the briefing tell us about future plans?

Services are going to look very different, and changes will be widespread

The government has said projects it funds should be able to work across whole systems. Partners In Practice and the innovation fund will be used to ensure that changes are not limited to one local authority. The government has previously announced a £20 million What Works Centre to share good practice.

  • Ministers want projects that can “redesign the organisational systems and practice frameworks that underpin children’s social care”. Anything the programme supports should be able to transform a system, rather than improve it incrementally, if it were adopted “at scale”.
  • Good examples from the innovation programme and elsewhere in children’s social care will be spread across the sector.
  • The government is “very keen” to encourage and accelerate ideas about children’s services being delivered through new models, “whether that be through regional or sub-regional arrangements for part of the social care service, through children’s social care trusts and/or through mutual or other delegated services arrangements”.
  • “Now we want to take what we have learned so far from the Innovation Programme, and from wider examples of excellence in the children’s social care system, and spread this kind of whole-system redesign across the sector, so that we are consistently creating the right environment for excellent practice to flourish,” the report says.

Local authorities won’t be the only organisations involved

The voluntary and private sector are being invited to take part, and local authorities are being encouraged to look outside statutory social work for inspiration.

  • The government lists organisations it wants to hear from as: – academies, academy trusts, directors of public health, private sector providers of social care or adjacent services, and local authorities. Bids can include ideas learnt from other sectors, or a relatively new approaches that are yet to be tested.
  • Relationships with other sectors or providers could include learning from them, and applying them to children’s social care.
  • The fund will be used to help support authorities, trusts, private or voluntary organisations who want to adopt/adapt innovations developed elsewhere.
  • In services for children in care and care leavers, the government wants to encourage local authorities to delegate responsibilities to other providers. Ministers also want to develop “new specialist delivery vehicles, with full case-owning responsibility and greater freedom to work across organisational boundaries”, arguing these arrangements “may be able to respond more holistically and effectively” to young people’s needs.

The government wants to free-up social workers

As previously identified in the government’s ‘academy-style freedoms’ agenda, a lot of emphasis is being put on changing the practice culture and systems social workers operate in.

  • The Department for Education wants to fund projects that “redesign the practice system around an uncompromising focus on what children and families need”. It points to evidence from the last round of innovation programmers that suggested social workers should be able to take decisive actions themselves, “rather than just assessing and monitoring”.
  • “We have already started to see evidence that, by giving professionals freedom and support to design the services that they know children and families need, we can have a dramatic impact,” the briefing says.
  • The DfE also wants to encourage structures “which empower social workers and other professionals to use their skills and judgement to best support vulnerable children and their families”.
  • New delivery models must show a clear vision of “practice innovation” on the frontline that a model will deliver.

Social care’s relationship with adolescents is in the limelight

Issues facing children in care and care leavers are unique, the document says, and areas the government wants to prioritise.

  • The Department for Education expressed a particular interest in providing a consistent approach to support across adolescence in care and leaving care.
  • It wants to fund new ways of looking at supporting young people in care, or with disabilities, as they transition into adulthood, as well as “changing the journey of young people completely” by keeping adolescents out of care.

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