The National Children and Adult Services Conference (NCASC) is one of the highlights of IMPOWER’s calendar. This year, 15 of us made the pilgrimage to Manchester, reflecting the importance we place on staying abreast of (and participating in) the debate around social care.
This time around, I felt there was a change in what I saw and heard, especially around the future of children’s services. The sector has moved on from dwelling on the toughness of the challenges it faces, to instead focusing on what is being done to tackle the issues at hand. This is a welcome move – a shift from looking to the future rather than to the past – and I listened to some fascinating presentations about what this means for various local authorities.
I took four main messages away from this year’s conference:
- The national landscape is changing, and previous answers are not necessarily the right ones for the future. At a presentation by the Child Poverty Action Group, I was left open-mouthed by the revelation that 67% of children in poverty have at least one parent who is in employment. The families who will need support in the future aren’t necessarily the same as those who have needed help in the past.
- The sector can’t wait for Whitehall to act. Nadhim Zahawi, the Minister for Children, was on the receiving end of some quite challenging questions from the audience, particularly around ensuring sustainable funding for children’s services. His response was sensible but unremarkable: he wanted honest dialogue with the sector and would keep advocating with the Treasury. The Minister reiterated his enthusiasm for innovation-type funding; even though this will set up councils to bid against each other for a finite pot of money, and some will inevitably miss out, I would welcome the discipline of creating business cases, understanding what works and using data to measure performance and outcomes.
- Leaders know they need to seize the opportunity to reframe services towards achieving better outcomes and improving lives. At IMPOWER’s exhibition booth, we asked visitors about their views on the future of adults’ and children’s services. About two-thirds took the view that the sector needs to act; central government action is not the primary solution. I don’t think we would have recorded the same result in previous years; patience has clearly run out. For more on this, read my colleague Jeremy Cooper’s recent blogpost.
- The sector is innovating. I listened to some exceptional presentations from around the country about how authorities are stepping up to the challenge, working in new ways and sharing insight with each other. From North Yorkshire County Council’s whole system approach to quality assurance, to Cornwall County Council’s crystal-clear strategic aims for their children’s services team (more than just saying ‘more multi-agency working’), we were surrounded by fresh thinking and a willingness to share ideas. Donald Forrester from the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care also explained how the Centre is developing a clear view on the evidence about the most effective interventions and ways of working.
In summary, NCASC was characterised by the number of great ideas being spoken about, a willingness to share, an understanding of the need for better data to base decisions on, and a clear view of the need to work at the interfaces between organisations (as Stuart Carlton, Director of children’s services in North Yorkshire correctly observed, “remember, we are leaders within systems”).
I will admit, I came away from the conference feeling more upbeat than I expected to. Those working in the sector might consider a new rallying cry – “Cras es Noster” – Tomorrow, Be Ours!