Structural change in children’s services ‘no panacea’ for councils’ problems, research finds

Study drawing from experiences of children's services trusts, partnership arrangements and areas undergoing reorganisation highlights importance of leadership, organisational capacity and connections to local communities

Diagram showing a networked structure (credit: REDPIXEL / Adobe Stock)
(credit: REDPIXEL / Adobe Stock)

Large-scale structural change of children’s services is “no panacea” for challenges facing councils, the Local Government Association has said after research for the organisation highlighted important factors that can deliver successful service redesign.

The study concluded that factors such as political will, specific leadership qualities and the willingness to take a long view around achieving service improvements were the most important enablers of successful change.

The research drew on the experiences of children’s services trusts, areas that have gone into improvement partnerships, and counties that have been reorganised to create new unitary authorities.

It concluded that while such changes could be valuable tools towards delivering benefits – including improving organisational identity, focus and culture, and working more flexibly and innovatively – making them did not in itself offer any guarantee of a positive outcome.

‘Relentless focus on quality of practice’

Instead, success was more likely to be linked to the presence of crucial building blocks, and to key ‘design principles’ relevant across a range of different ways of delivering children’s services (see box), the study found.

“[Structural change] can be an enabler to create the leadership, staffing and financial capacity to deliver improvement,” an LGA spokesperson said. “Without these changes, and a relentless focus on the quality of practice, structural change cannot on its own improve services for children.”

Local circumstances were also crucial in terms of understanding the types of structural change that might work in a given area, the LGA said.

“The importance of the local context is also emphasised in the report’s findings that children’s services work best when services are integrated, where they are well connected with the rest of the council and where they are firmly rooted in local communities,” the spokesperson said.

Capacity for change

The LGA’s research, carried out by the Isos Partnership consultancy, aimed to identify approaches to structural change that had worked well, especially for children and families, with a view to informing future work by local authorities.

Design principles

The LGA’s research drew out a series of “consistent structural design principles”, which it found were applicable to a range of children’s services delivery models. They were:

  • The importance of having a structure that maintains the integrity of children’s services as “an integrated whole” including early help, children’s social care, inclusion, education and youth services.
  • That all models should be grounded in the local communities they serve, to foster dialogue and engagement.
  • That services should be designed to enable and support effective partnership working, and to facilitate strong relationships with the rest of local government, including politicians.
  • That organisations “must pay attention” to building in structures that support good practice, such as quality assurance and auditing, and a coherent practice model.

Its fieldwork drew on the experiences of arms-length trusts set up in Worcestershire and in Kingston, Richmond, and Windsor and Maidenhead, where Achieving for Children operates services. It also looked at partnerships between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and the bi-borough areas of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, as well as local government reorganisation within Dorset.

The research team additionally spoke to senior leaders at Birmingham, Northamptonshire and Sunderland, all of which had experience of children’s trusts being set up – and in Northamptonshire’s case of local government reorganisation too.

Jill Colbert, the chief executive of Together for Children, which manages services in Sunderland and is now ‘outstanding’, said she had contributed “to support the wider understanding of the role the [alternative delivery model] in Sunderland has played in improvement”.

She said she hoped her input would “enable an informed insight of what works in children’s social care, so we can build effective intervention programmes based on the difference they make for children rather than on ideology or custom and practice”.

Common building blocks

In most of the areas where children’s trusts have been established – and also in the case of the Hampshire/Isle of Wight partnership – structural change had effectively been pushed on the local authority areas in the form of statutory directions from the Department for Education following poor Ofsted ratings.

This enforcement approach was tied to a crucial factor identified as influencing the direction of change – whether sufficient capacity to achieve it was deemed to exist within an organisation. Two other important considerations were found to be whether a restructured organisation was big enough to bear the cost of an experienced DCS and new leaders and specialists, and whether suitable high-performing neighbours were present that could enter a partnership.

But whatever the approach pursued, the study found “a remarkable degree of similarity” in the crucial building blocks without which successful change was unlikely to happen, which included:

  • A long-term commitment to a change model, giving the time and space for new structures and practices to bed in, backed by local political will – which has not always been present in cases where the DfE has intervened.
  • The presence of senior leaders with particular skills, such as taking a “visible and hands-on” approach focusing on practice and performance, being open and willing to listen and being able to make staff feel safe.
  • Effective communication of why change is happening, clearly focusing on the impact on children and families and how staff can contribute, and extending to co-design – including by communities – of structural design details.
  • Linking structural reorganisation to positive cultural change, including around institutional values, which can act to raise morale among existing employees – making them more likely to stay – and attract new ones.
  • Carrying out change using a strong project-management approach and within coherent frameworks, especially relating to organisations’ governance and accountability structures and their IT systems.

The presence or absence of such factors has been highlighted in Ofsted reports and evaluations of a number of areas that have undergone structural change. Experts interviewed by Community Care in 2020 made similar remarks in relation to how successful the practice of setting up independent trusts to manage poor-performing children’s services departments has been overall.

‘Grounded in experience’

Ray Jones, an emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St. George’s, University of London who has been an outspoken critic of removing children’s services departments from direct council control, said the report’s conclusions were “sensible” and “grounded [in] experience and wisdom”.

“Too often, organisational change has been imposed by politicians, civil servants and corporate managers, with little understanding or expertise regarding children’s social services,” Jones said. He said a fixation on “big bang changes” for their own sake was the path to “churn and chaos”.

“What this report highlights is the importance of building a stable, confident, experienced workforce, close to communities, with continuity over time, and with leaders who are focused on the needs of children and families, stay close to frontline practitioners and teams, and where there is an honest and open culture,” Jones added.


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