by James Blewett
A critical Channel 4 undercover film about Birmingham children’s services shown a couple of weeks ago precipitated the announcement by the city council that it is relinquishing control of its children’s services department.
In the future, children’s services in the city will be managed by an independent children’s trust. This follows similar moves in Doncaster, Slough and Sunderland.
Accounts of the background to this move highlighted the deaths of Kyra Ishaq (2008), Keanu Williams (2011) and Keegan Downer (2015) and there appears to widespread support for this proposal.
On Channel 4 News on 24/5/16, a Birmingham Labour MP, Khalid Mahmood said children services were governed by “self-interest” and Anne Longfield the Children Commissioner declared her belief that such a move would support a “culture shift”.
In a subsequent interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, Professor Julian Le Grand from the London School of Economics also supported the idea. Le Grand, a long-term advocate of removing children services from direct local authority management, argued that “children services are in a culture of a decline”.
Besides a general message that “something must be done”, little evidence however has been produced to support the adoption of an independent trust model in order to improve services so they deliver better outcomes for children.
Over a year after its establishment Doncaster was, despite some improvements, still found to be ‘inadequate’. Only its adoption service was rated as good; and the Trust has set itself the ambitious target of moving to ‘good’ by next year and ‘outstanding’ by 2019.
Similarly, Slough was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted while in a children’s trust, but this inspection happened only a short time after the trust has been established.
Improvements, as the local children’s commissioner Lord Warner pointed out, were also occurring in Birmingham. However children’s services now face another period of change and turmoil.
The indications are from other councils that – far from representing a swift and decisive move – each of these trusts (unsurprising given their complexities) took over a year to set up and incurred extra financial costs
The proponents of such Trusts may be tempted to point to the improvement that has started to occur in Doncaster, despite the overall ‘inadequate’ performance; and they would argue that change does not occur overnight.
However, a closer examination of the Doncaster Ofsted report reveals the additional dangers posed by the introduction of new structures which result in the fragmentation of services for children and families. For example Doncaster council has a contract with the Doncaster Children’s Trust trust to deliver children’s services, but the Trust also has a contract with the council to deliver early help, which is coordinated by the council.
In the context of this arrangement it is perhaps unsurprising that Ofsted found in their inspection in 2015 that:
“The early help partnership offer, which is coordinated and led by the council, is fragmented and too many children and young people whose needs could be met at a lower level are referred for statutory services. In a small number of cases, inspectors saw serious weaknesses, including delay in holding strategy discussions, potentially leaving some children at risk of harm. The quality of assessments is not consistently good and for some children plans are not clear enough about the areas of concern or what actions are needed to be undertaken to reduce risk.”
Practitioners and managers will be familiar with many of the criticisms made of social work services in both the Slough and the Doncaster Ofsted reports.
Large workloads; assessments requiring greater depth and sophistication; earlier access to early help; plans for children and young people requiring clearer purpose. These are all common criticisms that have been made in respect of many local authorities. They have also been acknowledged in key national initiatives such as the Munro Review and the work of the Social Work Reform Board.
Lack of resources
What is striking however, in the coverage of events in Birmingham is the absence of any acknowledgement of a context of a chronic lack of resources.
Certainly children’s services were facing difficulties that predated the recent waves of budget cuts. However, they are now doing so in a context where local authorities have had to endure cuts of 40% in their funding, and where demand has risen by as much as 80% in terms of referrals.
Moreover the ongoing cuts have weakened the whole “ecosystem” of family support in many localities, so that the capacity of early help services, targeted youth support, CAMHS, the voluntary sector and indeed universal services have all been degraded. As Ofsted noted in Doncaster this has a profound impact on social work services.
Removing children’s services from direct control of local authorities has significant implications in terms of local democracy and the role of elected members.
It is therefore never a move that should be taken lightly.
As with schools, early indications from inspections are that this course of action does not bring about swift improvement: rather these organisations face precisely the same challenges as local authorities in addressing often highly complex need in difficult circumstances.
Besides this two specific additional challenges are posed by independent trusts.
Firstly, by complicating the organisation of local agencies, they can weaken the efficacy of the child welfare system in meeting the needs of families who need help. Secondly, the changes can be and consistently are presented in a highly political manner that feeds a narrative of the ‘failing’ public sector.
Such a narrative erodes the morale of the workforce, deters families seeking early help, creates an illusion of quick fixes, increases instability, and exacerbates exactly the problems which the move to independent trusts purport to address.
James Blewett is a social worker and the London co-ordinator of Making Research Count.