‘The power of social work has shaped who I am’ – ADCS’s new care experienced president

Andy Smith's positive experience of the care system led him to a career in social work. He is now president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, as the sector prepares for a general election

ADCS president for 2024-25, Andy Smith
ADCS president for 2024-25, Andy Smith (photo supplied by the ADCS)

Incoming Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Andy Smith is passionate about social work’s potential to improve children’s lives.

While such a belief is commonplace among senior managers in local authority children’s services, for Smith, it is personal. He was one of those children whose lives were transformed by a social worker.

Smith was taken into care as a baby, spending the first 11 years of his life in a foster home before those same carers adopted him.

From the age of seven, up until his adoption, he had the same social worker, with whom he remained in contact into his 20s.

‘My social worker was pivotal in shaping my career’

It was a relationship that was pivotal in his decision to join the profession some 30 years ago.

“I had a really positive experience of social workers,” he says. “My social worker was really pivotal in shaping my career and my aspirations and dreams.”

This was not just based on his experiences as a child but also on what he learned reading his case files while training to be a social worker.

“It showed there was lots of good practice going on,” he says. “Even though it’s a long time ago, there are lots of similarities with what we talk about in terms of good relationship-based social work.”

A passion for social work

His positive experience is one he shares with the social workers he oversees in Derby council as its strategic director of people, a role that encompasses the statutory positions of director of children’s services (DCS) and director of adult social services (DASS).

“It’s given me a real passion for social work and the good that it can effect in people lives,” he says. “It feels very instinctive for me to talk about the power of social work, even 40 years later. It’s definitely shaped who I am.”

It is also a reason why, despite having been a senior manager for almost two decades, he maintains his social work registration.

“I’m very proud to be a registered social worker,” he says. “Even though I don’t practise on the ground, I keep connected to practise.”

Being a director ‘is a tough gig’

As one of a declining breed of “twin-hatted” directors, Smith has a lot on his plate, managing budgetary, service, workforce and political pressures across children’s and adults’ services.

He is helped, he says, by working for a “supportive organisation” in which “adults’ and children’s services are a corporate priority”.

But with 42 of the then 152 local authorities having had a change of DCS in 2022-23 and a report last year highlighting the many pressures on those holding the position, he admits that being a director is a “tough gig”.

“The context of operating as a DCS is something that feels as pressured now, if not more so than before,” he says. “One of my priorities [as president] is ensuring we support DCSs.”

Promoting greater diversity

As he made clear in his inaugural speech as president, this includes promoting greater racial diversity at director level.

Just 6% of DCSs were black or from a non-white ethnic minority as of 31 March 2023, compared with 18% of the population of England and Wales in the 2021 census and 25% of statutory children’s social workers in England, as of September 2023. 

In his speech, he said promoting a more diverse workforce was an ADCS priority and that it was committed to “highlighting, challenging and addressing issues of disproportionality, discrimination and systemic barriers that limit opportunity where they exist”.

Like his two immediate predecessors, Steve Crocker and John Pearce, Smith comes to the presidency at a time of great flux for children’s social care in England.

Crocker’s tenure coincided with the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’s final report and the Department for Education’s response, through its Stable Homes, Built on Love strategy to reform the sector. Pearce’s term saw the ADCS seeking to influence the DfE’s approach to implementing the reforms.

A coming general election

This will continue under Smith, who will also be the president that takes association into and through the next general election, which will most likely take place in the autumn.

With Labour predicted to win, it is not clear how children’s social care policy would change as a result. Chief social worker for children and families Isabelle Trowler said recently that she did not feel the election would make a difference to the trajectory of the Stable Homes reforms (see box).

What are the DfE’s social care reforms?

  • Social work training and development: a five-year early career framework for new social workers in council children’s services, to replace the assessed and supported year in employment and promote retention.
  • Agency social work: the introduction of national rules limiting councils’ use of locum staff, including regional caps on what authorities pay agencies, to save money and reduce staff turnover.
  • Family help: the ‘families first for children pathfinder’ areas are testing the provision of early support to families, to stop their needs from escalating, through multidisciplinary teams formed from the merger of targeted early help and child in need services.
  • Child protection: the same pathfinders are appointing lead child protection practitioners to hold child protection cases, working in multi-agency teams with fellow specialist health and police staff, with a view to improving the quality of safeguarding practice and multi-agency working.
  • Involving family networks: the pathfinders will also test using family group decision-making to help parents minimise risks to children. In addition, seven areas are testing providing family support network packages to help extended families care for children and avoid them going into care.
  • Foster care: £27m will be spent on a carer recruitment and retention programme from 2023-25 to tackle shortages of foster placements for sibling groups, teenagers, unaccompanied children and children who have suffered complex trauma.
  • Commissioning care placements: the DfE will test, in two areas, the establishment of regional care co-operatives to take over the commissioning of care placements from individual authorities, to tackle the insufficiency of placements and excess profit-making.

‘Lack of urgency’ to reform social care

The ADCS broadly supports the reforms and their aims: investing in early support for families and in kinship carers so fewer children need child protection interventions or to go into care; boosting the supply of care placements to tackle the current insufficiency; and improving the quality and sufficiency the social work workforce to improve relationship-based practice with families.

Its key arguments with the DfE are that the reforms lack sufficient urgency at a time when councils are struggling to keep the current system running.

“[Stable Homes] makes the case robustly that if we fail to invest in early help, we will see escalation of cost,” Smith says.

However, currently, the key reform to enable this – family help – is being tested in three areas, with seven to follow later this year. Smith says it is imperative for the approach to be tested as quickly as possible “so that we can demonstrate to the Treasury that there’s an absolute case for investment because that will lead to better outcomes and better value for money for the public purse”.

A rising care population with increased complexity of need

Trowler has said that the key success measure for the reforms will be a “massive cut” in the size of the care population. However, not only has that population grown in each of the last 15 years as councils lose foster carers and the secure home sector shrinks, but they are also working with more young people experiencing complex needs who highly tailored placements.

Placement insufficiency is driving significant cost.

Despite councils having budgeted 11% more in real terms for children’s social care in 2023-24 than 2022-23, County Councils Network research last autumn found that the 41 shire authorities alone were facing a combined £319m overspend during that financial year. 

Meanwhile, council spending on independent children’s homes more than doubled from 2015-16 to 2021-22, according to research by market analysts Revolution Consulting.

Stable Homes, Built on Love includes a number of measures designed to tackle the issue, including recruiting more foster carers – which the government is backing with £27m from 2023-25 – while the government has recently announced further funding to build children’s homes.

‘More action needed on care placements’

However, the ADCS is sceptical about the DfE’s key placements reform – creating regional care co-operatives to take over responsibility for commissioning – and, in any case, this is also years from implementation, with the department yet to announce the two pathfinder areas that will test the change.

On this too, Smith insists more urgent action is required.

“We need a properly resourced plan to tackle what is a placement sufficiency crisis and some of it cannot wait for some of the medium- and long-term plans in Stable Homes.”

In an echo of his presidential predecessors, he is also that this requires action on “profiteering” by large private equity-backed providers. He says that the £310m in profit made from publicly-funded children’s social care by 19 of the 20 biggest placement providers in 2021-22 (source: Revolution Consulting) “doesn’t feel right”.

Tackling ‘profiteering’

“I’m talking about a relatively small amount of providers who are generating a huge amount of profit,” he says. “If the government were minded there are things they could do to manage and sort that.”

In his presidential speech, he expressed support for care review lead Josh MacAlister’s call for a windfall tax on the profits of the largest providers. Pearce has previously called for national rules for the provider market, including ensuring that they charge a fair cost for care.

The government is not deaf to these calls, having promised to bring forward measures to combat profiteering in the children’s homes market later this year.

The DfE has already acted on ADCS calls to tackle what the association also described as “profiteering” in the social work agency market, through the national rules due to come into force in the summer of this year.

Qualified support for new agency social work rules

Smith strongly supports this with one caveat: the ADCS opposes the DfE’s decision to go back on its original proposal to ban outright the use of agency project teams. The practice of some agencies restricting the supply of locums to such teams, driving up costs, is directors’ chief bugbear with this market.

Under the DfE’s revised plans, project teams will be permitted but their practice must be fully under councils’ management, with the engagement of each individual worker subject to all the other national rules, including regional price caps on what authorities pay agencies.

However, in his speech, Smith said that there were “no benefits of the project team model being deployed in statutory case holding work other than the opportunities it provides for agencies to generate unacceptably high profits”.

He tells Community Care: “I think that’s something we will need to monitor the impact of going forward. It didn’t go as far as we would have liked but we’re in a better place than we were.”

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