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Dominic Luscombe

Widening the debate on the future of children’s services

Childrens services dom post

In December 2014 Children’s minister Edward Timpson unveiled a plan to tackle poor standards across “failing” children’s services departments. Within this was a key role for ‘Achieving for Children’ – a social enterprise company created by Kingston and Richmond authorities to deliver their children’s services, and described in its 2014 National Children and Adults Services Conference billing as the ‘future model for children’s services’.

Last week we heard that this company – given an oversight role by government in the creation of a children’s trust in Sunderland – is heading for a £8.2m deficit by the end of 2018-19. This news come fresh from research suggesting sparse evidence that the adoption of independent trust models improves the outcomes they deliver to children.

While a reality check for those espousing new delivery models with greater autonomy from local authorities as a ‘panacea’ for the challenges faced by children’s services, these developments should come as no great surprise. My colleague’s recent Fit for Purpose report excellently challenges the notion of new delivery models as a ‘quick fix’.

iMPOWER’s work with children’s service departments nationwide has shown the following to be true…

  • Supply side change does not fix the problems faced. The financial and organisational challenges facing children’s service departments cannot be overcome solely through ‘supply side’ changes to models, structures – or indeed the scale of separation from parent local authorities.
  • Understanding and managing demand is key. To improve outcomes and get a grip on finance and performance, authorities need to focus on understanding what drives demand and cost. They need to use this understanding work with partners and commissioners to get the right support to children and families earlier.
  • Form needs to follow function. There can be benefits which accompany a greater level of autonomy from authorities, and the establishment of new and commercialised delivery models. However, for many authorities setting up and transitioning to new entities can be a complex and resource-heavy distraction from focusing on the ‘root causes’ of the problems they face.
  • One size fits all approaches won’t work. A good demonstration of this point is DfE’s Regionalising Adoption programme, which explicitly favours voluntary sector-led entities leading adoption services. We’ve recently seen this apply to a region where voluntary organisations have weak local market shares and track record. Approaches need to be tailored to local needs and market conditions.

There’s a natural interest and enthusiasm among many for large scale and ‘sexy’ structural changes – and a hope that these can improve outcomes and reduce costs. However, our work in this area suggests this cannot be a substitute for a focus on understanding and responding to the root causes of the challenges faced by departments, children and families.

 

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