This article was originally posted in The MJ.
In recent months local government has been calling on Theresa May and her Government to provide clarity on its commitment to devolution and the future of the sector. But in children’s services, it feels as though the opposite is happening.
From recent interventions, it’s clear that for the Department for Education (DfE), removing children’s social care from the council and into alternative delivery models is the solution to ‘failing’ children’s services.
The DfE is currently working with Reading BC to make recommendations on the future of the borough’s children’s services.
This follows recent interventions in Sunderland, where it was also recommended that the council transfer its children’s services in to a new company.
As recently as October, Sandwell Council were also told to spin out its children’s services regardless of, as reported in The MJ, Ofsted reporting that improvements were being made.
Call me cynical, but it is pretty clear which way Reading is now headed, despite what demonstrable improvements it can make in its three-month window of opportunity. The DfE has gone from ‘actively encouraging’ to – in the case of Sandwell – instructing councils to spin out.
However, there is no evidence base from which to determine whether spun-out services actually deliver better outcomes, and are any more financially viable as a result. This is why iMPOWER is calling for an independent evaluation on children’s alternative delivery models.
Councils are aware of the risks if, further down the line, we realise that spinning out children’s services turns out to be the wrong answer.
The corporate parenting responsibilities do not transfer, the financial risks do not ultimately transfer and the political pressure from a bad inspection remains with the ‘host’ authority.
The sector needs the opportunity to test, and the evidence to know, whether these alternate delivery models deliver on their intentions, and this needs to happen before any more unproven models are delivered at great cost to the public purse, and potentially, to children.
That is not to say that spinning out children’s services is necessarily a bad thing; done in the right way and for the right reasons, they can provide the necessary catalyst for sustainable service improvement.
However, spinning out services is not a panacea and does not solve the fundamental issues around demand.
An outsourced service, for example, is not going to in-and-of-itself reduce domestic violence which, for many localities is a main cause of children ending up in care.
Nor is it going to change the way partners work with each other where, in many cases, partners can be the main source of referrals and avoidable demand into the system.
Sustainable change is rooted in system-wide approaches to prevention, underpinned by behavioural and cultural change. Yet despite the lack of evidence on alternative delivery models in the children’s services arena, the DfE insists councils should continue to outsource services.
Sector leaders have called for a proper evaluation, including Dave Hill at Essex CC, Alison Michalska at Nottingham City Council and the education select committee to name but a few. But it is essential the evaluation is independent. If it is not independent, we risk it being self-fulfilling. Local government and directors of children’s services need an evaluation that is authoritative, objective and thorough.
We must have the evidence base that both the DfE and councils can use to inform future decisions to spin out services.To me, this is obvious and basic evidence-based policy making.
It is right the sector should be encouraged and motivated to test innovative ideas and concepts. But tests need evaluations to make sure that they work.
I also question whether we should be testing on whole-scale children’s services departments, and how many of these do we do before we sit back and reflect on the genuine ‘success’ of the experience?
The recent National Audit Office report Children in need of help and protection says ‘the department is still learning about what works best and leads to improvements, and what costs’.
I would argue the department needs to learn quicker and before it insists on other struggling councils spinning out their children’s services. Once the evaluation has been carried out, the sector will be in a much better place to consider to what extent spinning out children’s services is right for the council and the service in question, let alone the children and families they serve.
It will also give DfE legitimacy (or not) if it continues to push ahead with alternative delivery models.
Finally, it will also mean that the DfE, local government, and other key partners and stakeholders can have a proper conversation about children’s alternative delivery models, when they can be effective, and what we can do to make them work.
Equally, where removing children’s services from the council is not the solution, a conversation can be had about what an alternative model looks like.
As it stands, given the current trend of DfE interventions, combined with the lack of evidence, it feels like nothing more than an enforced leap into the unknown.