The future of a children’s services company that operates across three boroughs is to be decided at council meetings next month.
Councillors from Richmond and Kingston are being asked whether community interest company Achieving for Children (AfC) should continue to run local children’s services beyond March 2021, or whether they should be returned to direct control.
Services in the two local authority areas were voluntarily transferred to AfC – a company set up under the councils’ joint ownership – in 2014. Three years later it also took over at nearby Windsor and Maidenhead, which owns a 20% stake while the two original councils retain 40% each.
The organisation has been one of the more successful arms-length providers of children’s services, achieving a ‘good’ from Ofsted at its first two locations. Windsor and Maidenhead remains ‘requires improvement’, with a focused visit a year ago noting improvements – albeit uneven ones – under AfC.
It has also delivered commercial consultancy services to other improving children’s services, notably in Doncaster and Dudley, as well as being a member of the government’s Partners in Practice initiative, under which high-performing authorities share good practice with the rest of the sector.
Earlier this month, AfC’s managing director, Ian Dodds, was appointed joint director of children’s services (DCS) at Richmond and Kingston, following a 12-month period during which the councils had separate acting appointees in place.
But with the seven-year contract between AfC and its original two partners set to expire in 2021 (Windsor and Maidenhead’s runs until 2024), Richmond and Kingston are examining whether the partnership offers a sustainable path forwards.
Children’s services company scrutiny
Children’s services across the country are experiencing extreme budget pressures due to a combination of expensive care placements and, to a lesser extent, agency staffing costs. But arms-length models have received renewed scrutiny from their parent councils of late.
In September, Slough cabinet papers revealed the council was writing to the Department for Education (DfE) for assistance because the children’s services trust it was made to set up was threatening to hugely increase its budget deficit.
More on Achieving for Children
Earlier in the year, meanwhile, Doncaster council opted to bring its children’s services trust into council ownership, partly in a bid to increase transparency and enable savings from shared services.
AfC – which has historically run at a deficit and made a loss of £6.75m last year – is so far predicting modest rather than catastrophic overspends on this year’s children’s social care budgets. But Kingston council papers setting out future options for children’s services underlined the fragility of the authority’s finances, and referenced a review published earlier this year that called for changes around how AfC provides for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
‘As-is’ option rejected
“Progress has already been made in respect of these recommendations, with an update to be provided at a future meeting of this committee,” November committee papers from the borough said. “However, further improvements can be achieved through a full review of the contract and the option to extend on an ‘as is’ basis has therefore been rejected.”
Instead elected members at Richmond and Kingston are being asked to jointly consider five options, three of which involve bringing services back in-house in one or more of the three boroughs that commission AfC.
The other choices on the table involve jointly extending the children’s services company’s contract, with changes to its terms and the firm’s governance, or ending it entirely so the individual councils can negotiate new arrangements separately.
Two other options – retaining AfC for back-office functions only or attempting to contract services from another third-party provider – were dismissed as unworkable.
Changes to the service delivery model will be considered following the identification of a preferred option, Kingston’s report said, in collaboration with Richmond and Achieving for Children.
Community Care has approached AfC for comment.