Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480-499)


27 OCTOBER 2008

  Q480 Chairman: Do you want the last word on this one, Marion?

  Marion Davis: I am not aware of anyone having researched whether the political flavour of a council has an impact on those sorts of decision, but over the years I have worked with elected members from all the main parties. Some have advocated for residential care and some against, some have advocated for various policies, but in my experience, it has never been split on party political lines.

  Q481 Chairman: As a rider, can I say to Steve Goodman that earlier you described the deficiencies—I exaggerated in one of my comments—in the training of social workers. I am a director of the London School of Economics, and I know the background of why we do not do it. On the other hand, there is a problem of insufficient, good-quality research in British research institutions. You draw your conclusions from your experience, and you have a certain focus in Hackney. However, when we went to Denmark, what impressed Committee members was the sheer quality of the training of social pedagogues, educational pedagogues and the whole team involved in children's issues. They were highly qualified and had fantastic training—I suspect that if one delved, one might even find very good research in Danish university departments. Their conclusion was that more children should come into care and be looked after, and they worry about taking even more into care. I and some members of the Committee got the feeling that those people can figure out pretty quickly whether there are serious problems in a home environment from which a child should be protected. I put it to you that good training and research lead to very different conclusions from yours.

  Steve Goodman: The two things are mutually exclusive. There is a need, if you are working with young people and their families, as you and I have said, for a highly skilled professional—I do not think that there is any doubt about that—but you could have a set of highly skilled professionals, some of whom do what they are doing in Denmark, and some of whom do what they are doing in other Scandinavian countries. I do not think that the two things go together. I do not think that having absolutely the best-qualified and trained social workers would necessarily lead to more children in care. I think that it would lead to what we have at the moment, but a better system—that is, an attempt by us all to try to keep children in their families as much as possible. I do not know enough about Denmark to comment further.

  Chairman: Edward, do you want to lead us through accountability to children.

  Q482 Mr Timpson: I return to an issue that I raised with Councillor Lawrence a little earlier: accountability to children in care. We touched on the idea that children in care should understand what a corporate parent is, although it will have little meaning to them, and what should happen if a child in care wants to challenge a decision that has been made about their future, however small or great that change may be. Not all children in care will go through the court system and have a children's guardian to represent them. What is the best mechanism for a child in care to voice his views and to get them heard? Is it through an independent reviewing officer, an independent advocate, or a foster care association? What route should we take?

  Marion Davis: We need to be very clear about the roles of the people whom you mention and others. We recently established a Children in Care Council, but we made it clear that it was not a forum for young people to raise individual complaints. There are a number of other mechanisms. They can complain formally, but we recommend that they use the adult whom they trust the most—whether that is the foster carer, an advocate, an independent reviewing officer or their social worker. If elected members get into that territory, they can be on difficult ground. That is not to say that I do not believe in open and active dialogue between young people who are looked after and elected members. In fact, we have had looked-after children giving presentations to large groups of members, at full council and so forth, but also in small workshop settings. Some very brave young people have been prepared to tell their stories and talk about their school moves and experiences in foster care and with their birth families. I can tell you that several experienced elected members were very moved by some of those stories, and in fact were quite tearful. That led to a much greater understanding of some of the experiences of our looked-after children, but we have to be a bit cautious that elected members, or any other corporate parents, do not inappropriately step into the role of advocate or social worker and so forth—they are different. It should be for the young people themselves to choose an adult whom they trust.

  Pauline Newman: I think that we are doing right in relation to looked-after children. It depends on many of the things that we have already discussed. It depends on having a good care plan and on being involved. For the children, it depends on them being able to express their wishes and feelings at the review, and all the way through. It involves good relationships with the people who have the caring role and with the school. On top of that, we found in Manchester that we needed to invest in a good children's rights service, which has recently proved its worth. I have seen stuff come across my desk in which people are vigorously challenging decisions about them. That has been important. If you are going to invest a lot in independent reviewing officers, you have to be absolutely clear about how they achieve their influence in the organisation. Whether they are independent or an arm of the children's services, they have to achieve a response to the challenge—and to do it they need the routine backing of the managers of the services. When the review shows that x, y or z has not been happening properly, or that something needs to happen to a time scale or whatever, they need to be able to have the support of the organisation to get hold of the issue and to get it moved forward. I am not sure, sometimes, that the right issue is whether they are independent; the issue for me is how they are enabled to make their contribution. That means that people like me have to be strongly supportive of their role and their challenge, and ensure that managers at all levels are equally so and treat their work as showing a level of challenge and involving support for the young person. Children's rights services have a good part to play.

  Steve Goodman: I agree with everything that has been said. I think that checks and balances need to be in the system—they are probably about right at the moment—but the main point is that we have to get things right first time for looked-after children. We have to concentrate on the social worker being able to do a good job for the looked-after child. If we carry on putting more checks and balances into the system, but do not address that fundamental issue, we will not improve the experience of looked-after children.

  Q483 Mr Timpson: May I go into a little bit more detail about the children in care councils? I know that one has been set up in Warwickshire and is going through its early stages. Through Care Matters, there is a duty on local authorities to come up with a pledge to develop them through the children's trust arrangements. Is that sufficient to ensure that the voices of children in care are heard? Does it give sufficient detail for that to happen? Is there a danger, again, of each local authority coming up with its own pledge? I have read the Warwickshire framework that has been put together. Is there a danger that that will increase the problem of inconsistency among local authorities?

  Marion Davis: I would not suggest that that is the only way to hear the voices of children in care, but I think that it is an important addition to the range of forums and mechanisms that are already in place, because it requires the Director of Children's Services and the lead member to have direct interaction with spokespersons for looked-after young people. That is where it becomes quite difficult. We have only an interim council at the moment with a group of five or six active, articulate young people. I have met them, as have the lead member and the chair of overview. They are supported by advocates and other officers, and they will move on to work out how they can communicate with the wider body of looked-after children and those who have recently left care. That is quite a complex undertaking. They will also be organising the elections for the permanent Children in Care Council, but that will, of course, be a rolling group of young people, because the members will become older and some will leave the system and so forth. However, not every young person will find it easy to speak up in that setting, even with the best advocacy and support, so we must pay a lot of careful attention to how representative those views are and listen to the voices of young people in a more localised setting, particularly those young people who might have more specialised needs, perhaps because of a disability or for whatever reason. It is not the only mechanism, but it is an additional, direct communication between the director and the lead member and a hopefully representative group so that they can influence what we are doing. So far, our group of young people is telling it like it is and giving a great deal of thought, time and care to its messages in both directions.

  Pauline Newman: Whatever the mechanism is, it is only as good as the feedback that we give young people about what we did with the information that they gave us. There is no earthly point in listening if we never tell them what resulted from what they told us.

  Chairman: That is good common sense.

  Pauline Newman: That criticism can be levelled at a lot of adults.

  Q484 Mr Timpson: I know that Annette wants to come in, but may I ask one more question about the issue of accountability more generally. Specifically, it involves considering how we can make the voices of sons and daughters of foster carers heard and how to get them more involved in decision making. They play an important role within the dynamic of a foster care home. Sometimes we look at just foster parents, rather than a foster home and a foster family, but often the children of foster carers can play a significant role in ensuring that there is a stable and secure environment for the children in care. Do you agree? Secondly, how do you think that we can try to ensure that the voice, role and contribution of sons and daughters of foster carers are better articulated in the care system?

  Caroline Abrahams: One does not want to impose a sense of responsibility on those children and young people that they would not want. It strikes me that this is about good practice on the front line. One would want social workers and others who are actually working directly with foster families to be aware and to take a family-centred approach, if you like, by having a clear focus on what is going on for the child for whom they are responsible, but seeing that in a broader context. I think that that would be very helpful. It strikes me, more generally, in quite a lot of this discussion that there are some things that you can mandate from the centre that are about strong leadership from the DCS and the lead member. The Government can help by setting the right framework and all that, but in the end, that is all the wiring, and what really matters is the quality of the relationship between the worker and the child. Everything we do should be about trying to make as conducive an environment as possible for that relationship to flourish and to be stable. For me, your point is very good, but we do not need a system for that. We need committed, skilful, intelligent, humane, aware workers with time to be able to think about that. I think that is mostly about practice and training supervision.

  Marion Davis: In the past few days, I have received our foster carers' newsletter, and an article in it, entitled Kids Who Foster, is about a piece of work done by our fostering service with the sons and daughters of foster carers. We have involved them for some time in the training process for fostering, where we run specific sessions for the children of the household, for whom fostering can have a very great impact. We have also run social events and sessions. However, like any other group of children, they all have different views. Some of them want to be involved in groups and some of them definitely do not. They want to be normal, not singled out as the kids who foster. Again, it is a question of listening to the voices of those young people and what they would find supportive. I am very happy to leave the newsletter for the Committee to read.

  Q485 Chairman: Just on that point, they are all fragmented anyway, are they not? They are all over the place, in different settings, and going to different schools. We visited Merton, where they have a virtual head teacher for all those people—I do not know what number you mentioned for Warwickshire—but I think it is not uncommon to have such a virtual school and virtual head teacher who keeps tabs on every child in care so that there is an overall responsibility for someone. Do you like that sort of system?

  Steve Goodman: We do not have a virtual head teacher; we have a real head teacher.

  Q486 Chairman: A head teacher of a virtual school.

  Steve Goodman: Yes. Actually it has been really good. Ours has been around for two years now. It really focuses the minds of foster carers and social workers on educational attainment. We know, of course, that educational attainment is a good route out of deprivation, so it is really important for looked-after children to have the best opportunity to get the best education, and we are again very lucky in Hackney that the new academies there pencil in the names of looked-after children before any other children. If children are fostered in Hackney, we are now able to get them a place in the academy. It is really important that educational attainment is right at the top of the agenda for social workers and foster carers.

  Q487 Chairman: Pauline, does Manchester do anything like that? Would it not help with the problem that David described of all those kids wandering around with nobody knowing where they were?

  Pauline Newman: We opted not to apply to have one when they first came out, but I am not knocking them because I am not in a position to do so, nor would I want to. I suppose that we felt that we had to make an impact on all 23 secondary and high schools that we have—we are now also going to have some academies. They feature highly in our admissions policy and in our fair access protocol, when children are looked at by a group of head teachers when they are not in school for some reason.

  Q488 Chairman: Are you going to do your academies in a rather strange way?

  Pauline Newman: No, we are doing them in an excellent way.

  Q489 Chairman: But you are not even going to change the heads. I thought that the way to deal with failing schools was to change the regime, get rid of the heads and make a fresh start.

  Pauline Newman: I am afraid that you have heard some mythology. We have recruited principal designates, who are appointed for each academy. We have one more to go, but the leadership will not be exactly the same. I will not digress, even though I could go on for ages, but the key to our model—

  Chairman: It is me who is digressing.

  Pauline Newman: The key is collaboration. Sponsors come from growth sectors of the economy.

  Chairman: Sorry for that digression.

  Q490 Annette Brooke: I just want to ask a quick question, to which I would like a short answer. Should every authority have a children in care council?

  Pauline Newman: I agree with what Marion said. It is one method, but you would not say that it is everything. We have a children and young people's engagement strategy, within which is provision for young people who are looked after. They may be with other young people in the engagement strategy in district forums, and the fact that they are looked after is just an accident. There needs to be a range of mechanisms within engagement work for children and young people. I believe that the idea of a council is good, but I would not trust everything to it.

  Q491 Annette Brooke: I accept, as you said earlier, that it is only one method, but my question was whether every authority should have one.

  Pauline Newman: Does that mean that there should be a law to that effect?

  Annette Brooke: Well, yes.

  Pauline Newman: It is possibly beneficial that there is some consistent expectation for local authorities, but it would be a mistake if that was not seen in the context of what else an authority is doing with children to engage and to do other things as a result. Consistency is helpful for Government expectation and guidance, but in one place, such a council might be the only thing, and in others it might be one of 10 robust measures.

  Annette Brooke: That leads me on to another question, but could you give a quick answer to the question, Steve?

  Steve Goodman: My short answer is yes; link it to the Youth Parliament, but do not think that it is a panacea.

  Q492 Annette Brooke: Following on from that—you led me beautifully to my next point, Pauline—one of the really big problems that we have revealed this afternoon is the lack of consistency between standard and practice at the moment. What do the Government need to do to ensure that all the expectations in the White Paper, including children's care councils, come to fruition, so that you have much more consistency across the board?

  Caroline Abrahams: As Councillor Lawrence said, some sort of minimum expectations are helpful. I do not think that you can mandate all this change from the centre. The approach that the Government have taken with the Care Matters implementation plan—they got all of us to sign up as delivery partners—is right. All the evidence that we have—you would expect me to say this, but I am going to say it anyway—tells us that if you get people working with you from the start, you get a much better impact. Certainly, the strong preference expressed by staff in children's services, particularly DCSs and senior managers, is that they should learn from one another.

  Q493 Chairman: What was that acronym for poor old Hansard?

  Caroline Abrahams: DCSs are directors of children's services. I was talking about the power of peer approaches and learning from others about good practice. It is right to give more support to help people to do so. We need to make that a campaign. There is a lot of good will out there and many people want to do it, but the trick is ensuring that there is sufficient, relentless focus on the subject, within a broader context. The likes of us, the Association of Directors of Children's Services, the Improvement and Development Agency for local government and the Centre for Excellence want this to work. I think that we can make it better.

  Marion Davis: There has been a huge amount of change for children's services. We do not need many more initiatives or pilots that are not evaluated. We must concentrate on investing in Children's Trusts as partnerships, and on the development of the children's work force—I do not mean just within local authorities but right across the partnership—so that we speak the same language, and develop a united culture about what we are trying to achieve with regard to outcomes and experiences for looked-after children and all children in our area. We need resources, but not just money. Having said that, in the current economic times, local authorities will be struggling for the rest of this comprehensive spending review period. We need to invest in the people who can make a difference, and to continue to listen to the voices of children, young people and families. We must continue with some of the positive initiatives that we have begun. We need to see them through, as Caroline says, in a relentless, focused way that is based on the evidence about what works.

  Steve Goodman: The complexity of children's social care needs to be recognised. We need to help councils manage that complex task by helping social care to focus on edge of care, child protection and looked-after children, and not to become involved in other situations. As I have said, we need to learn from what is going on in other countries. I do not mean just Denmark, but Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. That involves a separation of the social work training required for adults and for children, which is not a popular view. The training course should concentrate on teaching methodological approaches. The emphasis should be on changing what goes on in families and not just on assessment, although assessment is important. As the councillor said earlier, there should be a national campaign, such as the one that was successful for teachers, to attract high-quality people into children's social care. Lastly, Integrated Children's System (ICS) should be stopped.

  Pauline Newman: I was going to ask why, but that is not my brief.

  Q494 Chairman: Why, Steve?

  Steve Goodman: Because I think that it is very burdensome on social work tasks. You end up getting lots of paperwork, but it does not help social workers, especially if they are working systemically, to think through the complexities of what they need to do to intervene in families.

  Marion Davis: And the IT systems are not sufficiently developed to support it.

  Pauline Newman: I do not have much to add. Broadly, I feel that children's trusts work. The work that we are all doing is bearing fruit. We must get a real quality focus. Inconsistency is okay if it is justified either geographically or in some other way. What is not justified, however, is different qualities of interventional support. The issue about work force leadership development is hugely important. I know that we have a responsibility to influence the work force of lots of independent sector providers, but, for me, there is something about core public sector values and a strong child-focused way of going on.

  Chairman: We are really enjoying these answers, but we have to move into more rapid-fire questions and answers.

  Annette Brooke: I am happy to stop now and then come back on section 6.

  Chairman: Paul, will you give commissioning placements a go?

  Q495 Paul Holmes: Clause 10 of the Children and Young Persons Bill requires local authorities to secure sufficient local accommodation to meet the needs of looked-after children. Why do you need to be told to do that? Surely, you do that automatically. Marion said that they have done that in Warwickshire already.

  Pauline Newman: We would all try to do it, but it would be a significant problem for Manchester because, geographically, it is long and skinny. In other parts of the country, some local authorities would be like our suburbs. It is a highly deprived place, so quite a significant portion of our foster carers live in Tameside, Trafford, Salford or wherever. We would be in difficulty about what has been proposed. We totally accept the principles and we know that some things are much harder if somebody is in a foster home in another authority, but for us it is a major challenge. I do not look forward to plummeting performance on yet another indicator on the basis that we cannot do it straight away.

  Q496 Paul Holmes: But surely you cannot deliver effective care for children in care unless you have appropriate residential settings, whether care homes or foster homes?

  Pauline Newman: Clearly, we have to commission the right range and choice of places. I talked before about some of our commissioning in that respect. You may be a certain way in terms of your population and geographical boundaries. Youngsters traverse Greater Manchester in loads of different ways. Travel-to-learn patterns show that. The idea that we can have hard-edged boundaries that say a foster carer in Trafford is now a no-no will be very hard for us.

  Q497 Paul Holmes: But the provision will not necessarily say you have to provide the places within the boundaries of your authority. Presumably it could say that you do it by using more private providers and so on.

  Pauline Newman: For what it is worth—other authorities may have had a very different experience—one of the issues has been regional commissioning. Hand on heart, I cannot say that regional commissioning has made a massive impact in Greater Manchester. In fact, in terms of Manchester city, we were able, as a big-volume user of placements, to make efficiencies and savings much more effectively by going out to bat on our own procurement methods.

  Chairman: I think we gave up regional commissioning in Yorkshire.

  Pauline Newman: It is difficult. I think regionally and perhaps in London you can find some of the best examples. The London boroughs together can achieve things, but it has not been significant for commissioning.

  Q498 Paul Holmes: What about Hackney?

  Steve Goodman: We placed only one child more than 20 miles from Hackney in the last year. Obviously, our looked-after children population coming down makes the job easier for us. We have a lot of foster carers in adjacent boroughs, so there is still some complexity when we have to make decisions about whether a young person will continue going to their school or move to a school in another borough. London has the problem that if you travel just a few miles you are in a different borough, but generally we should enable young people in care to live as close as possible to the school and particularly to try to retain contact with it, if that makes sense. That is very important. Sometimes it is important for a young person to move away, depending on the circumstances, and sometimes there is a particular issue that we need to address with a young person that necessitates specialist provision. Although you have heard my comments about residential care, I am not saying we never use residential care. Sometimes that might be necessary and a young person might need to be placed a long way from Hackney, but I do not think that there are too many difficulties in our finding foster placements close to Hackney, and that is absolutely what we do when it is the right thing to do.

  Q499 Paul Holmes: Marion, you said near the start of the sitting that Warwickshire had solved the problem by paying and supporting foster carers well.

  Marion Davis: Not 100%, unfortunately—I wish that it were. We still need to make sure that there is a greater level of choice of placements in the system. Although we are better supplied with foster carers than most local authorities, it is still not always easy to find the right match in the right place to fit the child's needs. As the Bill looks at the moment, it seems over-prescriptive. I think many local authorities will struggle to meet the requirements as suggested. One of the things that happens in Warwickshire is that our virtual school head takes responsibility for children's educational needs wherever they are placed, so even if they are outside the local authority boundary, she is still responsible for education plans and so forth for them. If a placement is a distance away, it presents a problem for social work staff and others to maintain the kind of relationship that we have been talking about, which is so important for helping children and young people through their period in care.

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