On 1 November, if all goes to plan, Northamptonshire council will transfer its children’s services to an independent trust, two years after the government intervened on the back of an Ofsted report that found social workers “drowning”.
That date remains uncertain. Last month, the troubled East Midlands authority forced the resignation of Ian Curryer, the man the Department for Education chose to chair the fledgling body, after councillors attacked his past record while working for Nottingham council.
But as and when the handover goes ahead, Children First Northamptonshire will be the ninth such organisation to assume control of previously local authority-delivered children’s services. A tenth, in West Sussex, is in the works, with local cabinet members soon due to consider the details of a memorandum of understanding with the DfE defining the scope of the county’s children’s services trust. Between them, they will be responsible for children’s services in 12 areas, 8% of the total.
That’s a not insignificant total. But it’s a far cry from ambitions held by the government just four years ago, when shaking up – or to critics, privatising – children’s services governance was at the heart of a pledge to deliver once-in-a-generation reform.
In July 2016, a DfE report set out aspirations that a third of councils could be “delivering their children’s services through a new model”, or working towards one, by 2020. This was a year after then prime minister David Cameron announced “landmark reforms” to children’s social care, under which councils deemed to be failing would be given six months to improve or be taken over.
In fact, Northamptonshire and West Sussex now seem like outliers, against a recent trend of children’s commissioners – the DfE-appointed troubleshooters – choosing to give ‘failing’ local authorities a chance to sort out their problems with support from others. This is a chance many councils have taken (see box). Meanwhile trusts’ track records have been patchy, with some flourishing while others continue to struggle.
What then are the lessons from a project rooted in the David Cameron era And are the two new trusts likely to mark the end of the experiment?
‘Failure and disillusionment’
It’s more than seven years since the London School of Economics professor Julian LeGrand, supported by former social services leaders turned government advisers Alan Wood and Moira Gibb, prepared a report for the DfE recommending Doncaster’s children’s services be handed over to the first trust. In its wake, then education secretary Michael Gove moved swiftly to announce that the council be stripped of its children’s social care functions, prompting warnings that interventions elsewhere could follow.
For almost a decade previously, there had been chronic problems within the South Yorkshire borough’s children’s services – including around thresholds, assessments, oversight and workforce instability. These were brought into the starkest possible relief by the infamous 2009 torture by two brothers, known to various agencies, of a pair of younger boys – which ultimately led to the LeGrand review.
At the time of the review, Doncaster was graded ‘inadequate’ across the board by Ofsted, with LeGrand’s team describing a “long-term failure of corporate and service management” and noting that “failure and disillusionment pervades the [children’s services]”. The trust opened for business in April 2014.
That year, further reviews issued similarly bleak judgments on Slough and Birmingham councils. Birmingham’s services continued with the council under DfE intervention until a decision was taken in May 2016, just before a damaging undercover Channel 4 documentary was aired, to pursue the trust option.
“It was the final straw,” recalled Dave Hill, Surrey’s late director of children’s services (DCS), and at the time the DfE’s commissioner in Birmingham, who we interviewed weeks before his sudden death in June 2020. “They knew the government would move on them, so it was better to volunteer.”
By the time of Birmingham’s announcement, Slough’s trust, the second set up on the DfE’s orders (and against the local council’s protestations), had been operational for six months.
Slough was not, though, the second local authority to transfer out its operations. Less than 20 miles away, neighbouring Kingston (then ‘inadequate’) and Richmond (‘good’) had voluntarily established Achieving for Children, a community interest company launched in April 2014, to jointly manage children’s services across the two boroughs.
While the circumstances under which these organisations emerged varied, their advantages were seen to be similar.
“You’re setting up an organisation 100% committed to working with vulnerable children,” said Eleanor Brazil, who oversaw the creation of Doncaster’s trust, as the council’s interim DCS. “You can focus all the attention on that and not be distracted by the range of other things that happen when you’re part of a local authority.”
“Trusts can also attract people who might not work in that local authority,” added Brazil, who has gone on to be one of the most prolific of the DfE’s independent children’s commissioners. “[People] who have had successful careers see an opportunity to develop an organisation that is free from local authority bureaucracy.”
‘Something we can own’
That sense of having broken with a difficult past was apparent at Birmingham Children’s Trust, 20 months into its lifespan when Community Care visited last winter.
The trust, wholly owned by Birmingham council, was still proving itself against its historical context of false dawns, said the chief executive Andy Couldrick, who emphasised that he was “no evangelist” for outsourcing. But Couldrick said he believed the trust – graded ‘requires improvement’ in January 2019, breaking a decade-long run of ‘inadequate’ judgments – had progressed more quickly than would have been possible under the council.
“Birmingham, when I got here, was fighting a number of fires – seriously impacted by austerity, and with unique challenges,” recalled Couldrick. These – also mentioned by Hill – included industrial action from bin workers, which led the council’s chief executive to resign in 2017, and the damage inflicted on partnership working by the ‘Trojan horse’ scandal involving fake allegations of a conspiracy by Islamists to take over the city’s schools.
Whether they are directed to transfer out their children’s services or not, councils experiencing a DfE intervention are now likely to be partnered up with a high-performing peer authority to help bring elements of their operation up to scratch.
But in the early days of alternative delivery models, commissioners’ reports usually considered the option of ‘inadequate’ children’s services being formally handed over to the control of neighbouring authorities.
The model has only worked successfully in the long-term on the Isle of Wight, where services have been directed by neighbouring Hampshire for the last seven years – and received an across-the-board ‘good’ rating in 2019.
A similar formal arrangement between Torbay and Plymouth, recommended by Hampshire chief executive John Coughlan, came to an end last November after less than two years, with Torbay continuing to struggle and Plymouth also running into difficulties.
“With hindsight, [Hampshire and the Isle of Wight] went into partnership because some planets were aligning – we were strong, and large, there was something about scale and capacity that made it manageable,” said Coughlan.
“Those things are hard to replicate,” he added – though he said that faced again with Torbay’s challenges, as another very small borough, it would be hard not to come to the same conclusion.
In its briefing to Community Care, the DfE acknowledged the complex puzzle – not least around geography – involved in formal partnerships, but said they still had a future, albeit not necessarily in the format pioneered on the Isle of Wight. The department pointed to the “tailored” arrangement brokered by Eleanor Brazil between Kirklees and its ‘outstanding’ neighbour Leeds, which saw the city take on statutory responsibility for services for a year, with its involvement gradually reducing thereafter.
Brazil said such solutions were her favoured approach for driving children’s services improvement.
“But they are not straightforward – there’s a limited number of really good local authorities – full stop – and even more so who are willing to, and have the capacity and capability to engage in what is a hard job,” she added. “Leeds were fantastic in Kirklees, and I have managed to persuade them to do something similar in Stoke, but not every local authority is in a position to do that.”
The sheer scale of the local authority made it even harder for political and corporate leaders to maintain a focus on improving children’s services in Birmingham, Couldrick added. Separated off, the 2,000-strong trust is more manageable, he said, albeit still comparable in size to many local authorities.
For years, the council’s struggles weighed down on staff, said Lara Timms, one of the trust’s three principal social workers. “Day in, day out you’d be seeing headlines about your workplace, and it did impact on people because you are out there trying to do your best and constantly being told you’re not good enough,” she added.
While some staff left during the transition, Timms said consultation with frontline practitioners – as well as young people – set a positive tone, which had been maintained via measures such as better internal communication and access to senior managers.
According to Timms the trust’s dedicated HR department – something local union reps also remark favourably on – has enabled a sector-specific slant in terms of considering the needs and wellbeing of employees, including but not limited to social workers. “Even for admin staff, it’s quite a different job than for someone working in, for instance, the gardening section of council,” she said.
“Going into the trust, aligning that with improvements made, has made us feel we have something we can own and be a bit proud of,” Timms added. “Even the new branding lifts people a bit, but it’s the innovation, projects coming up, that people are excited about.”
A mixed picture
Four years ago, on a visit to Slough Children’s Services Trust, then 14 months old, we encountered similar enthusiasm. One manager spoke of having “the freedom to think differently” compared with the era of council control.
Since then though, the trust has made faltering progress, eventually shedding its ‘inadequate’ Ofsted status two months after Birmingham, in March 2019.
An independent review published in 2018 warned the organisation’s “tense and dysfunctional” relationship with its parent council had initially hampered its focus on strategic objectives. Last year the organisation faced a serious financial crisis, which led to Slough council calling in help from the DfE because of the threat to its own financial stability.
Other children’s services trusts have also had difficulties. Together for Children, formed on government orders in Sunderland in 2017 under the direction of Achieving for Children’s first chief executive Nick Whitfield, remains ‘inadequate’, despite tentative recent signs of improvement.
The jury is also still out on trusts in Reading – rated ‘requires improvement’ in 2019 – and Sandwell, where monitoring visits have observed progress but a Unison survey conducted last year found ongoing staff discontent. Meanwhile the most recent authority to transfer its children’s services – Worcestershire, where Worcestershire Children First launched a year ago – had already moved up from ‘inadequate’, raising questions as to whether the shift was strictly necessary.
But elsewhere, Achieving for Children has thrived, adding a third borough, Windsor and Maidenhead, and scoring an ‘outstanding’ grade in 2019 for Kingston, who carried an ‘inadequate’ rating as recently as 2015. Doncaster, the first trust, has been ‘good’ since 2017 and, like Achieving for Children, is now a DfE ‘Partner in Practice’, offering peer support to other children’s services.
All in all, looking across areas where DfE commissioners have been sent, those that have become trusts have fared similarly to those retaining control of their children’s services. So what can be learned from this – and with the benefit of hindsight, are there still specific circumstances that merit services coming out of council control?
‘An idea that’s had its moment’
Each of the current and former DfE commissioners we spoke to for this piece observed that, over time, the theoretical arguments for taking children’s services out of council control have butted up against reality. The last few years, all agree, have underscored how inextricably linked overall corporate performance and culture are with how well services fulfil their remit to children in need of help, protection and care.
“It’s become increasingly clear you cannot disentangle local government from its primary legislative responsibilities for children, even if you want to,” said John Coughlan, the chief executive of Hampshire council.
In points that were echoed by Eleanor Brazil, and have been regularly made by Ray Jones, an emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and staunch opponent of trusts, Coughlan added that new organisations were costly to set up and, by their nature, disruptive. As Northamptonshire’s recent travails illustrate, problems with local buy-in to the process can seriously amplify that disruption.
“It was critically important our setup process was consensus-driven, we weren’t arguing with the council and were working together, reaching the same conclusions,” said Couldrick of Birmingham’s experience. The parent councils of the trusts in Doncaster and Slough have also recently brought the organisations closer into their orbit – in part to improve communication, scrutiny and financial control, compared with the period when they launched.
With accountability still resting with the local authority, “you have to ask yourselves, what are we actually trying to do?”, said Coughlan, who as commissioner wrote the DfE review recommending West Sussex’s children’s services be transferred to a trust. “What is the benefit that will be drawn in these local circumstances that might require a trust solution?”
The crucial question commissioners must weigh, he said, was whether corporate and political conditions within a council allowed for, or encouraged the children’s services improvements necessary to remedy failings identified by Ofsted. “That is a series of very complicated conditions, and if they’re not in place that’s when you start to come to the conclusion that you need to create a buffer zone between children’s improvement and whatever the corporate challenges might be,” Coughlan added.
West Sussex did not meet those conditions, Coughlan said, while Northamptonshire also clearly has “huge corporate problems”. Both councils – even among those where children’s services are ‘inadequate’ – were extreme examples, he stressed.
In a briefing note to Community Care, the DfE said it had learned that trusts were most likely to succeed where local authorities had not recognised the extent of their failings, where the means to undertake improvement were not in place or where there was a long history of dysfunction. It added that there had been no fundamental change in the government’s presumption that children’s services that systemically or persistently failed should be moved out of council control unless there was good reason not to.
Despite that insistence, the commissioners we interviewed said there had been a subtle, welcome shift in thinking on independent trusts – from an ideological push to a pragmatic approach – from the post-Cameron administrations.
“It’s an idea that has had its moment. I don’t detect a great enthusiasm to do it again – unless things are so terrible that there’s no choice,” said Hill, who added that in his experience, the difference between an apparently desperate situation and a hopeful can come down to a few smart appointments.
“Barnet, in less than two years, went from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ across the board,” he said. “I was closely involved in the process and it just seems that when you look at the evidence, it suggests that for a lot of councils in deep trouble, with the right DCS in place and support from another LA, there’s a pretty good chance things will get better.”
‘It’s about people, not structure’
With an eye on the future, Coughlan said the government should focus unerringly on personnel, irrespective of delivery models.
“The big deal for me is not about the structure, but having the right people in the right place,” he said, pointing to “extraordinary progress” being made at West Sussex under the chief executive, Becky Shaw, and DCS, Lucy Butler, appointed since the DfE’s intervention. “For services to succeed you need really skilled frontline staff who are willing to go out on a limb for the authority, and to do so they need good-quality leadership.”
Perhaps the most important recent action the DfE has taken, Coughlan added, has been to reintroduce a programme for developing current and future children’s services leaders, which was axed almost a decade ago. “We missed it desperately when it fell victim to austerity, and it’s to their huge credit they have reinstated it – a really positive step,” he said.
With tragic prescience, Hill pointed out that the pool of people experienced at turning round departments either as a commissioner, improvement partner or appointee was small and often involved familiar faces, many of whom were approaching retirement. In its statement, the DfE said it recognised these risks and wa working to ensure it has as wide a resource of expertise to draw on as possible.
The department should invest more in expanding the number of people capable of going into local authorities and intervene effectively, using a “model [of improvement] everyone can congregate around”, Hill said. “The moment a local authority has a really poor Ofsted, get a war council together – the Local Government Association to talk to politicians, have Solace to handle the chief executive, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, have a straight conversation about what needs to happen, and get on with it.”
Developing more troubleshooters, he added, could enable a more integrated approach to be taken around Partners in Practice work. A DCS would be appointed strategic commissioner to an ‘inadequate’ council and would by default draw on their own department’s expertise, rather than drafting in another council, to help with operational improvements.
“I could then be coming in and be cracking on with the politicians, and then lower down [my service managers would] be doing work with the front door or whatever,” he said.
‘Redefining the environment’
While agreeing that there is scope for refinements to such processes, Brazil argued that the last few years of “local authorities getting their act together with the help of others”, rather than being converted en masse to trusts, represent a success story to be celebrated.
“The overall intervention model has worked quite well in some very difficult, very different places – a number of councils have been in a complete mess in terms of children’s services, who have with the help of commissioners and peers [sorted things out],” she said. “It absolutely brings a focus – the full weight of government – onto the authority and says, you can’t ignore this.”
But she too warned that it was a narrative that could only be sustained with more investment – in developing leaders and staff, but also in wider work to “redefine the whole environment in which children’s services are delivered”, not just in terms of governance but in terms of approach.
“The DfE [needs to be] much clearer about early intervention, early years, their relationship with children’s social care services,” she added. “We are spending millions and millions on children and young people in placements – wouldn’t it be better to spend some of that in helping families cope, and be less punitive when, sometimes you take a risk and things go wrong?”