99.So far in this Report we have focused on the social work profession. We cannot, however, ignore the proposed changes to the wider context in which they operate. In this Chapter, we consider the Government’s plans to reform the structure of children’s services and stimulate innovation in the system, and discuss the concerns we have heard about this approach.
100.Clause 15 of the Children and Social Work Bill is entitled Children’s social care: different ways of working. Its stated purpose is “to enable a local authority in England to test different ways of working with a view to achieving better outcomes under children’s social care legislation or achieving the same outcomes more efficiently.” This clause is driven by one of the core tenets of the Government’s social work reform strategy: to stimulate the level of innovation in the children’s social care system. This aim is being delivered through the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme, launched in 2014 and expanded in 2016, which is designed to encourage local authorities to try new approaches and learn from best practice. Local authorities are allocated funding for projects which “take bold new approaches.” The Government’s memorandum set out plans to establish “a permanent mechanism for identifying excellence and disseminating across the system” through the creation of a ‘What Works Centre’ for child protection. Alongside this, the Government announced a ‘Partners in Practice’ system whereby the best-performing local authorities will work together to provide a “blueprint for excellence that the whole system will be able to learn from.”
101.Our evidence generally welcomed introducing more innovation into the system, but there were concerns about the long-term sustainability of some of the programmes. Marion Russell, Principal Child and Family Social Worker for Cornwall Council, expressed reservations over its longevity:
Innovations need to be sustainable. We cannot keep doing short-termism and just doing something else that works for a short period of time and then that gets binned and then something else starts. So with whatever innovations, we do need to have built-in sustainability and they need to do that systemic cultural change. They are not an add-on that happens over there, “That one did not work. We will do something else.” It is innovation with sort of roots and sustainability built into it as well.
102.Research in Practice, an independent organisation supporting evidence-based practice with children and families, were concerned the Government might move ostensibly successful programmes from trial periods to standard practice too quickly, without enough time to learn how or why they worked and without addressing possible implementation barriers. Addressing the creation of the What Works Centre, they said:
It is important [the What Works Centre] is able to conceptualise and implement evidence in ways that are shown to be best suited to supporting behaviour change and that reflect the complexity of child protection and social work. To that end we caution against relying on a model of trials and passive dissemination alone.
103.The School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol said innovation needed to be evidence-based and one way to ensure this was to locate the What Works Centre “within the culture of a research active university or group of universities.” Discussing the What Works Centre, the Minister said “research coming from universities is going to be at the core of that through it being an academic-led centre.” We also heard it should not be limited only to child protection. ADCS told us “the focus of the Centre should not be limited to child protection but should cover the whole spectrum of children’s services.”
104.Isabelle Trowler told us that innovation would help to solve issues with working conditions and retention by allowing weaker authorities to learn from stronger authorities through the ‘Partners in Practice’ programme. Research in Practice warned that “authorities who have made significant progress to improve are still vulnerable to failure.” Durham Council was an original member of DfE’s Partners for Practice after it received an ‘outstanding’ judgement in 2012. It withdrew from the programme after its most recent inspection found its children’s services ‘required improvement’. Inspectors found a service reorganisation of its early help services had distracted attention from other teams. The redesign has been partly due to the introduction of ‘Families First’ model, backed by more than £3 million from DfE’s Innovation Programme.
105.We welcome the Government’s focus on encouraging innovation but we believe some caution is necessary. The Government needs to ensure that projects are evaluated fully before being applied at a national level. We want to see further details about the What Works Centre, including the strength of its relationships with research active universities, its approach to evidence, and its level of funding. The Centre’s focus should be expanded to all aspects of children and families social work, not just child protection.
106.Another significant element of the Government’s innovation strategy, which ties in with its commitment to increase the robustness of governance and accountability, is the intention to bring in new ways of delivering children’s services other than through the traditional local authority model. The memorandum said the Government would work “with local authorities and others on new models for the delivery of children’s social care, through social care trusts, combined social care systems and city deals.” The Children and Social Work Bill proposes exemptions for certain local authorities from the requirements of social care legislation, similar to current powers for the Secretary of State to exempt local authorities from the requirements of education legislation set out in Part 1 of the Education Act 2002. The Prime Minister signalled this policy intent in December 2015 when he announced that poorly-performing children’s services would be taken over in a “formalised academy style system” by high-performing local authorities, child protection experts and charities, who would be brought in as sponsors or formally take over statutory services via an independent trust arrangement. It was suggested this would happen if improvement was not seen within six months.
107.In its July 2016 policy paper Putting children first, DfE set out how this type of intervention would work in practice. DfE said that after an inadequate rating it would provide expert scrutiny to diagnose problems, and that progress would “be reviewed every six months”. If insufficient progress had been made after six months, or when council failure was considered to be systemic or persistent, a Commissioner would be appointed to “review whether services should be removed from council control”. DfE stated that when a Commissioner was appointed there was a “presumption that the service will be placed outside of the council’s control”. Systemic failure was defined as being assessed inadequate across all key Ofsted judgements, whereas persistent failure was defined as two or more inadequate judgements in a 5-year period.
108.Independent trusts currently run statutory services in Doncaster and Slough, and it was announced in May 2016 that services in Birmingham would be similarly reorganised. A recurring theme in our evidence was the lack of an evidence base to support the Government’s proposals. The LGA said that “there was currently little evidence that removing children’s services from council control and transferring responsibility to a third party organisation is an effective tool in driving improvement.” Essex County Council said the Government’s plans would create an “inconsistent national arena for the delivery of statutory social work duties” and a local authority “provides a neutral well understood broker” for its partnership agencies. Professor Ray Jones, when asked about authorities losing control of children’s services, told us:
We have had two councils—Doncaster and Slough—to date where that has been required. Both of them have been re-inspected by Ofsted and found not to be improved, but it does not surprise me because they spent their time reorganising, rather than finding out what was going on at their frontline and getting it back into control. My view is that even when authorities are in trouble, we know how to make it better, but at the moment we are introducing arrangements that distract us from doing that.
109.Paul Moffat from Doncaster’s Independent Children’s Trust disagreed with Professor Ray Jones’s portrayal of Doncaster’s performance. He said that although Doncaster had been judged ‘inadequate’ in November 2015, Ofsted did find improvement, and “there was confidence in the leadership and management going forward.” However, when asked whether the model is transferable to other areas, Paul Moffat said “I do not think it is a panacea; it is not something that can be applied in 152 authorities.” Research in Practice in written evidence stated that:
The move to independent trusts to run children’s services in the event of poor performance does not yet have an evidence base. This is not to say that forming trusts will not prove to be effective, but that this approach should be subject to evaluation in the small number of authorities where they are in place before adopting this mode of intervention in other areas. The evidence on performance improvement indicates that it is people, not structure that drive improvement.
110.We also heard that six months was not enough time for a local authority to turn its fortunes around. There was a unanimous view amongst witnesses in our first session that it was unrealistic. The LGA told us:
Transforming a child protection system takes time, and evidence suggests that embedding lasting change takes considerably longer than the six-month target suggested by the Government. It is also essential that additional funding is provided for struggling areas to ensure that the necessary improvements are effective and sustainable.
111.We asked two large charities whether they would be willing to take on statutory services, or act as a sponsor. Dr Sam Royston, Director of Research and Policy at The Children’s Society, said that “we have no plans to knock on the door around running statutory children’s services at this point in time.” Peter Watt, National Services Director of NSPCC, said clearly “we would not want to take on the running of the services in an area.” Although they clearly do not represent the entire voluntary sector, this suggests that finding charities to help out in the running of statutory services may prove difficult. Paul Moffat told us that there had not been a plethora of people wanting to be sponsors for the Doncaster Independent Children’s Trust. Marion Russell of Cornwall Council said:
I would reiterate that in many authorities the structure and the people are already there. If you have a lead member who is committed to children, a director who has those skills and abilities and the other pieces are in place, then you can work towards that improvement. Restructuring, changing systems, creating more churn takes the eye off the ball and takes the focus away from what you are doing with children. Absolutely, that can be done in partnership with other colleagues who have that expertise, but it is not about separating it; it is bringing it all back together.
112.We recommend that the Government assess the effectiveness of the existing independent trusts before expanding the model any further. Statutory children’s services should remain in local authority control until there is clear evidence that the independent trust model improves outcomes for children and young people. It appears that charities may not be as enthusiastic about taking on statutory services as the Government is to invite them to do so.
113.Six months is an unrealistic timescale in which to expect substantial improvement. Take-over of a local authority at this point could lead to further disruption and demoralisation and should be a last resort. At the end of the six month period, an assessment should take place to consider a range of options, including whether given more time, and a comprehensive package of support, the local authority could improve its children’s services without them being taken over.
183 , Clause 15
184 Department for Education, Children’s Social Care Innovation programme, , April 2016, p. 11
185 Department for Education, ‘,’ accessed 9 June 2016
187 Research in Practice () para 3
188 Research in Practice () para 4
189 School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol () executive summary
191 Association of Directors of Children’s Services () para 14
193 Research in Practice () para 15
194 Ofsted, (May 2016)
195 Department for Education, , January 2016, para 31
196 [Lords] [Bill 1 (2016–17)] para 21
197 “”, Department of Education press release, 14 December 2015
198 Department for Education, Putting children first: delivering our vision for excellent children’s social care, (July 2016) para 121
199 Department for Education, Putting children first, (July 2016) para 121
200 Local Government Association () para 3.4
201 Essex County Council () para 1
205 Research in Practice () para 16
207 Local Government Association () para 3.6
12 July 2016