Birmingham council’s decision was first mooted last May as it faced government pressure to act on a series of unfavourable Ofsted judgments and a Channel 4 undercover documentary on the authority’s child protection services. It marks the latest example of a gradually growing movement towards independent provision of children’s services.
Some councils, like Birmingham, made the move voluntarily. Sunderland and Northamptonshire are among other authorities looking to set up trusts over the next year, while the London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond joined forces back in 2014 to move their children’s services into a community interest company, Achieving for Children.
Others have had change forced on them by ministers after successive ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgments. In October 2014 Doncaster became the first authority, followed by Slough a year later, to be stripped of its children’s services and have them placed in a trust. Services in Sandwell face the same fate.
These interventions are the most radical step to date taken by the Department for Education to reshape the way children’s services are delivered, and have sparked fears ministers are paving the way for a marketplace in the sector or, at least, a social care equivalent to the controversial academies programme in education.
Proponents claim shifting services into a new organisation offers a clean break and a dedicated focus on children’s services that can be hard to achieve in councils. But critics fear trusts are an unnecessarily costly and disruptive way of achieving improvements that could be delivered in-house.
With growing interest in trusts and community interest companies, how do these claims stack up? How do the new models work? What are they like to work for? And what difference are they making?
‘Freedom to think differently’
Achieving for Children has already set a high bar. In 2015 it became only the second service to see its Ofsted rating jump from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ in the space of a single inspection (for the Kingston half of its operation; Richmond was already ‘good’). Last autumn the organisation, which now also operates commercial consultancy services to struggling councils, scooped ‘best employer’ at the Social Worker of the Year awards.
Both Slough and Doncaster, meanwhile, recently received encouraging Ofsted monitoring reports. These focused on narrow selections of services and found plenty of room for improvement, but gave the trusts grounds for optimism in terms of hitting targets by which to obtain a ‘good’ rating. For Doncaster, where Ofsted found a stabilising workforce, this means October 2017; for Slough, praised for an improved early-response setup and an increasing rate of change, it’s April 2018.
But what do social workers think? In Slough, where the installation of the trust was marked by wholesale managerial change, along with the implementation of a systemic practice model configured around social work ‘hubs’, practitioners we speak to are enthusiastic.
“The council was a very hierarchical organisation and there was lots of blame culture – it was challenging,” says Nicole, a consultant social worker who joined Slough as a student. She considered leaving prior to the trust being established but feels she and her colleagues have benefited from new leaders who have recognised individuals’ qualities and helped them develop more rapidly.
Nova, another consultant social worker who arrived at Slough council on a student placement, says staff were apprehensive about change being imposed on them by government but “went with the flow”. Employees were properly consulted about operational changes, she adds, with some of their ideas – such as the core principles guiding the trust’s work – having been adopted. She points to the adoption of mobile technology as a recent change that has driven practice improvement.
Fanny, the manager in charge of Slough’s first response team, adds that the flexibility of the hub system and a child- rather than process-centred approach to decision-making have made big impacts. She highlights open communication channels “from social worker to CEO” as being key to a more nimble way of working, giving people the “freedom to think differently”.
The notion of culture change is picked up on by Joel Hartfield, head of partnerships and business development at Achieving for Children. The organisation’s recent ‘best employer’ award was based partly on ways it has enabled staff to propose service improvements and to try new ideas; for example, by giving frontline workers the power to spend certain budgets without having to go through layers of management for permission.
“There’s a sense of people being free to try things; people putting hands up to make proposals who wouldn’t have before,” says Hartfield. “The mindset is different.” Both Achieving for Children and Doncaster children’s trust have pointed to staff satisfaction surveys as evidence of things working well.
But not everyone is convinced. Workers in Sandwell have threatened strike action over the government’s decision to TUPE (rather than second) them into a trust, fearing this could lead to terms and conditions being eroded in the long term. Unison representatives expect that issue to be clarified in coming months but have also claimed the enforcement of a trust has been “ideologically driven by the Tories set on privatising or cutting everything”.
The government has struggled to shake claims these new models are a ‘Trojan horse’ element of a plan to privatise services, despite ministers issuing repeated denials. The emergence in December of a much-delayed government-commissioned report, by consultancy firm LaingBuisson, advocating greater marketisation of children’s services has done little to help. That the government took the unusual step of immediately distancing itself from the findings highlights the ongoing sensitivity of the issue.
Another issue raised with new models of children’s services is their cost. In a November 2016 interview with the Guardian, meanwhile, Doncaster council chief executive Jo Miller questioned the value of the trust model. “[All council services] have improved,” she told the newspaper. “Children’s services haven’t improved any quicker – and the trust costs a lot more.”
Both sets of concerns are echoed by Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University. “I’d say ‘well done’ to managers and social workers in trusts for progress they have driven,” he says. “But was it necessary to have the extra cost, complication and time delay of setting up trusts to achieve this, when other areas do so while keeping services in-house?”
Doncaster children’s trust cost £2.9m to set up, while for Slough the figure is £3.3m, funded through grants from the Department for Education (DfE). But the LaingBuisson report also puts annual running costs for the model at around £3.5m.
Doncaster council declines to elaborate on Miller’s remarks. Nor will Slough council comment on ongoing costs, beyond stating that trust budgets are “in line” with what in-house services would have received – though council minutes from 2015 record disquiet among elected members about the potential for added burdens on the authority.
“Trusts add fragmentation and complexity, because there is still a transaction to be added around the time and costs of a commissioner within the council,” says Jones. He argues that the model is not an “efficient way” to drive improvement.
Slough children’s trust’s chief executive, Nicola Clemo, helped Cambridgeshire council jump from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ in the space of one Ofsted inspection, predating Achieving for Children. She stops short of holding the trust model up as a panacea. “Whether you’re a local authority or a trust, if children and young people are at the centre of what you do, that’s what makes it work. That didn’t feature in strategies or plans [in Slough before the trust]; they were absent.”
Clemo acknowledges that the DfE still has work to do in terms of figuring out the ideal governance arrangements between trusts and councils, but says she’s confident “children are safer” in her own borough as a result of the trust being there. She adds that the organisation’s narrow remit has helped focus it – and suits her. “The only thing I obsess about is children and young people,” Clemo says. “I don’t have to [sit in meetings] about potholes, or gritting, or other things local authorities must do.”
Paul Moffat, chief executive of Doncaster trust, adds that councils seeking to rectify ‘inadequate’ judgements have habitually thrown money at their problems. It’s “too soon” to be calling trusts bad value, he says.
“I’m confident that by setting up the trust, we’ve attracted lots of attention and talent,” he says. “Would those people have come anyway? Only they can answer that.”
The appeal of a new model will be tested this year in Sunderland, where £2.45m of DfE funding is contributing towards the setup of a company in the Achieving for Children mould, Together for Children Sunderland. It is already operating in ‘shadow’ format and will deliver children’s services from April 2017. Incoming chief executive Alex Hopkins says he’s confident that the “sense of something different happening here” will help sort out ongoing staffing problems at the services.
Achieving for Children will also expand directly. It’s taking on children’s services in Windsor and Maidenhead from April at a cost to the council of £364,000, subject to due diligence being completed – a move that should also make AfC more financially stable for the long term. Back-office functions will be merged, and there will be “some” sharing of senior management, Hartfield says, but the new partner will be a separate operational entity from its parent.
While consultations continue in Birmingham as to the exact shape the new organisation will take there, for Doncaster and Slough the clock continues to tick down on the trusts’ targets for improvement.
Doncaster must work on the consistency of its services, while Slough’s immediate priority is to get more permanent staff in post. For both, the goal is to achieve ‘outstanding’, with their contracts coming up for review after five and six years respectively – beyond which there’s the possibility of a return to council control. Whether that happens, and how many trusts are set up in the meantime, as councils continue to struggle with tightening budgets and staffing concerns, remains to be seen.
Given that uncertain future, Clemo says proving that “we know what we’re doing, and are doing a really good job” is the most important objective.
“If trusts build that credibility and deliver on what we need to, I think we’ll be allowed to continue in the way we’ve been developing.”