From a young age, new Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) president Rachel Dickinson has been motivated by a strong sense of social justice.
As a schoolgirl, Dickinson recalls being aware of the very different home lives of two of her friends, one a young carer and the other a child in care.
Motivated to “make a difference”, Dickinson, who succeeds Stuart Gallimore as president of the ADCS, made a conscious decision during her A-levels to become a social worker. This feeling has stayed with her in a career that has taken her from frontline practice to assistant director for children’s care at Derby council, before stints as director of children’s services at Leicester and Barnsley, where she now has responsibility for children’s and adults’ services as executive director for people.
Child poverty a major challenge
It also looks set to shape Dickinson’s year as ADCS president. In particular, she identifies growing child poverty as one of the major challenges facing children’s services and hopes the association can work with the government to tackle the issue.
Last month, official government statistics showed there were 4.1 million children living in relative poverty, after housing costs, in the UK in 2017-18, up from 3.6 million in 2011-12.
Demand for children’s services has risen in step with this rise in poverty, according to government data. This shows that, from 2013-18, the number of children in need in England increased by 7%, from 378,030 to 404,710, and the number subject to a child protection plan rose by a quarter to 53,790.
Dickinson says poverty often increases stress among families and can lead to a variety of issues, particularly domestic abuse, mental ill health and substance misuse, that are associated with children being in need. There is a strong association between family poverty and child abuse and neglect, a 2016 review of the evidence by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found. And the rise in child protection plans from 2013-18 was driven by increases in cases of neglect and emotional abuse, the two categories of risk particularly associated with poverty.
Dickinson says she is aiming to use her presidential profile to generate a “more robust response” from the government to child poverty and wants the association to “maintain visibility” on the subject.
“I will continue to raise the issue of disgraceful levels of child and family poverty in this country loudly in my conversations with ministers and others and to highlight the unintended impact of some government policies which make the lives of children and their families harder.”
Early help services suffering
However, Dickinson feels the funding environment facing local authorities is undermining efforts to tackle poverty and, by extension, demand for children’s social care.
While councils have largely protected children’s social care expenditure despite overall reductions in their budgets, there has been a significant shift within this budget away from early help and prevention towards statutory services.
This was set out in the National Audit Office’s (NAO) Pressures on children’s social care report, published in January. This found that in real terms, spending on looked-after children and safeguarding rose by 20% and 10% respectively from 2010-11 to 2017-18, but there was a 69% reduction in expenditure on youth services and a 58% decrease in finance for Sure Start children’s centres.
In the climate of reduced government funding and rising need, Dickinson says councils have had to make “tough decisions” about how funds are allocated and what services are cut.
However, she adds that cuts to these services, which often tackle the root causes of families’ issues, have added to demand on statutory children’s services, something which she says doesn’t make sense.
Though hard evidence for this is, as yet, difficult to find – the NAO found that local authorities that had closed children’s centres had seen a slight fall in child protection plans, rather than the expected increase – Dickinson is clear that there is such a link.
“It’s counter-intuitive because, if you pull back from early help prevention services, you’re stirring up trouble… in terms of the demand on children’s social care. But, equally important, we know that, if you get in [to help children] early, you have the greatest chance of improving children’s lives.
“Without investment in early intervention, the needs of growing numbers children and families are likely to escalate and reach crisis point this will result in huge human, and financial, costs.”
Need for early help prevention
The ADCS has long banged the drum for protecting investment in early help and prevention. Its October 2017 report, A country that works for all children, argued that a preventive approach to improving children’s outcomes should be the “golden thread” running through all government policy and that this was the best way of turning round the lives of the most disadvantaged children.
Dickinson says the report and the agenda it provides will be a platform for her leadership, as it was for Gallimore, her predecessor.
“From my perspective, it’s importance that there’s a voice of continuity in the voice of the association through the presidential role, so I will be using the messaging and branding of the [agenda] as a platform for the association [this year].
“These issues are really critical, and you don’t solve them in a single year, so I think it’s really helpful to have that continuity.”
Dickinson says she will be looking for additional funding for children’s services and the need for a sustainable long-term funding settlement.
“A country that works for all children needs properly resourced children’s services and, crucially, we need to be funded in the right way.
“There is not enough money in the system and this needs to change. What I call ‘funny money’ – one off pots of time limited funding for some local authorities and not others are not a sustainable, nor equitable way forward. Whilst £2bn might help to steady the ship in the coming year for one year, £3bn might help us to begin reinvesting in services that children and families rely on.”
However, in making this case, she will need to respond to concerns around the variation in spending between local authorities and, whether this means there is still room for some councils to become more efficient in the way they spend their resources.
The NAO rate of children in need episodes during 2017–18 ranged from 301 to 1,323 per 10,000 children between local authorities. Meanwhile, the amount spent by local authorities per child in need episode ranged between £566 to £5,166.
The Department for Education (DfE) has since commissioned research to understand both pressures on and variations between local authorities.
However, Dickinson is clear that councils have already taken what steps they can in terms of efficiencies following nine years of budgetary pressures.
“We started off with a language of ‘more for less’ and now we’re in the territory of ‘less for less’, so it’s really important we are clear that we’ve taken all those opportunities to be more efficient.”
Another priority highlighted in A country that works for all children was for local and central government to develop a “coherent workforce strategy” for the whole of children’s services to provide the best protection for vulnerable children.
It said it was important that there was an effort to recruit and retrain the non-social work workforce, including teaching staff, residential care staff, health visitors and child psychiatrists.
This theme was continued in the ADCS’s Building a workforce that works for all children paper, published in March, which said that, while efforts to elevate the status of social workers was welcome, it had “largely been at the expense of the wider workforce”.
In particular, this later report questioned whether the £23m spent on the National Assessment and Accreditation System (NAAS) could have been put to better use on frontline and early help services, addressing workforce retention in particular.
Under NAAS, social workers and practice supervisors are tested on their skills and knowledge and accredited or not, depending on their performance. Five councils implemented the system last year and it is now being rolled out to many more authorities in England.
Where best to spend money
The concern of the association has always been, if we have lots of money to support social work development, is that where we would put it?
“What we do need to do is support the development of skilled, confident, well-supported social work practitioners.
“We’re really keen to do that and there’s a range of routes to doing that. Obviously, I’m aware that the DfE and the chief social worker for children [Isabelle Trowler] feel very strongly that NAAS is a strong route into that.
“What’s really important is that individual authorities work to support those entered into NAAS.”
Social worker recruitment and retention still an issue
However, with children’s social worker vacancies at 16%, Dickinson points out that there is still much to do in relation to the children’s social work workforce, and says it is the responsibility of the ADCS to demonstrate to the government what conditions allow social work to flourish.
“We know that leadership and adequate resourcing are really important, but also support, effective supervision, working in a team context, manageable caseloads, leaders being sighted on the impact of working [conditions] on staff.”
She adds that social work flourishes best where there isn’t a reliance on agency workers.
“This ensures continuity of care for children, a much better quality of service, stability of teams, it creates an environment that people want to come and work in.”
The introduction of social work apprenticeships, which will launch this autumn, should help to ease recruitment issues, according to Dickinson..
She supports the scheme’s aims of offering a career pathway for people already working within social care.
“At the moment we have young people thinking about their future, but we also have workers working in different professions that may want to think about a social work apprenticeship.
“We need to take a multi-faceted approach to social work, and we need to celebrate the social work profession as well.”