Thank you for those kind words, David. It is a pleasure to be here.
I want to focus my comments today on support for vulnerable children, but first let me take a step back and thank Sally Carnie and her team at the East Sussex Adoption Service for sparing the time to meet me this morning.
On a day-to-day basis, we ask adoption teams to negotiate conflicting demands and situations of inordinate complexity, making the most far-reaching decisions. We also look to them to demonstrate real expertise in welcoming in potential adopters, while prioritising the needs of the children in their care.
Sally’s team has accomplished both feats with great skill and dexterity, and deserve enormous credit for doing so. As do Becky Shaw, Matt Dunkley and Colin Belsey for leading young people’s services in the area so effectively. Social workers and frontline staff make many of the crucial everyday decisions that affect individual lives. But it is you - the leaders - who make this complex machinery of moving parts tick.
So let me express my thanks to delegates here today. It is a pleasure to join you, to give my thanks, and to have the chance to meet many of you for the first time. Even if it is from behind a lectern.
I should start by offering assurance that I did not come down on Southern Trains this morning to unleash reams of new red tape, rules or regulations on the sector.
I do, however, arrive with a strong sense of purpose and a clear sense of my priorities.
The family I was brought up in wasn’t particularly conventional. We shared our house with over 80 foster children - many of them came from difficult backgrounds and broken homes.
The first foster children that came to live with us arrived when I was only seven. More often than not, they were troubled, neglected youngsters: craving stability and attachment. Most of them knew more swear words than adjectives.
I vividly remember my mum chasing after a little boy in our care as he careered around the kitchen on a tricycle, going through his repertoire of expletives.
I think it is a testament to my parents’ remarkable spirit and warmth that within a few months, most of those children had settled; they were thriving on routine; they were engaging both at school and at home. Learning and developing. In short, they had been given the chance of a normal childhood.
Unsurprisingly, these experiences have had a profound impact on how I now see the world. I grew up in the knowledge that we are not all given equal opportunities in childhood - but with the understanding that we should be.
It’s the reason I spent the best part of 10 years as a barrister in the family law courts. It’s the reason I went into politics and have deliberately chosen to devote my time to young people’s issues. It’s the reason I’m standing here now as Minister for Children.
So I want to begin this session by offering my real appreciation to lead members, DCSs and chief executives for the hard work they’ve done over the last two years to improve the lives of the least advantaged children.
Thanks to your leadership, we’ve been making good progress in areas including fostering, residential care, special educational needs and adoption - where we saw a 12 per cent rise in adoptions last year.
These are much-needed wins. And regardless of the frustrations with the system that many of us have to deal with, we shouldn’t forget the enormous amount of fantastic work that’s benefitting thousands of young people every day. I have seen it and lived with it myself. Children whose time in care has been an enriching, life-changing experience leading to further study, a successful career and a fulfilling personal life.
I never forget that all of this has been achieved - and is still being achieved - in the most difficult of economic contexts. Nor do I forget the financial pressure that is placed on town halls every autumn as budgets are set.
As leaders, we have a real challenge on our hands to absorb this pressure without losing any sense of our ambition, or determination, to seek out answers to the tough questions that continue to be asked of us:
Why are so many bright, intelligent care leavers unable to progress from school to further training, study, or work?
Why are vulnerable children placed in accommodation that exposes them to risk?
And how do we stop young people being corralled from one placement to another, carrying their worldly belongings in a bin bag?
None of these kind of questions have easy answers, but that is not the same as saying they don’t have answers.
I know some still argue that we can’t expect children in care to achieve much because they’ve been born into poverty, disability or disadvantage: or else make the claim that tough financial times prohibit any scope for ambition.
I simply do not accept that. Not just because my own parents showed me what can be achieved for vulnerable young people with the right support, at the right time, in the right place. But because more and more local authorities - led by you - are unpicking the logic of these arguments through intelligent, high quality interventions.
Right here in Eastbourne, the Adoption Service achieved its outstanding Ofsted rating, while managing budgets, by streamlining recruitment processes for new adopters and giving greater emphasis to placing children without delay.
I have seen many other local services setting the same high benchmarks: coming up with their own ideas or copying the systems of other councils around the country.
I was impressed to hear Martin Narey talk about Jo Farrar ringing him - immediately after Somerset Council received an outstanding Ofsted report - to find out whether there was anything else her team could do to improve adoption services.
And I want to praise those other local authorities who had the presence of mind to put in place robust, effective adoption support services from the very start, knowing exactly what it would mean in the years ahead in terms of real, human value: emotional security, confidence and all those other vastly improved outcomes that we can’t measure in tables or express in graphs.
These councils show that even in tough times, placements can be found quickly and efficiently without an avalanche of adoption breakdowns. They show vulnerable children do not need to follow a predictable path of placement churn, poor education, unemployment. And they show children in care are capable of achieving their potential.
This time last year, it was my predecessor Tim Loughton who addressed NCAS and paid his thanks for your support in these areas. Now I want to put on record my own thanks to Tim for the work he did to support the most vulnerable children in our communities.
Everything he did over the last two years was designed to complement and support the work of local councils. Giving the best authorities licence to innovate. Giving leaders the opportunity to drive local priorities. Speeding up sclerotic family court processes and making it simpler for the care system to function.
In the months ahead I want to build on this work across all aspects of support for vulnerable children.
So, in fostering, I want to develop the purposeful, common-sense programme of reform that Tim began: including cutting out more of the pointless red tape that stops carers getting on with everyday parenting. We’ve just launched a consultation on this and I encourage everyone here to make their voices heard.
In education, we’ll continue working with virtual school heads to help foster carers improve the education and training of the children they look after. I know David Laws also spoke yesterday about many of the other reforms we are driving forward in schools to support the most disadvantaged children.
In residential care, we are taking urgent action to improve standards. For far too long, far too little attention has been paid to the standards of placements.
We are working with local authorities and other partners to examine every aspect of provision: looking at commissioning and placement planning, the location and ownership of homes, and the skills of the workforce.
We are also looking particularly at the difficult issue of “out of area” placements. I know sometimes there will be good reasons for sending a child away.
But can it really be right that 45 per cent of children and young people in residential care are placed out of area, miles away from the local authority legally responsible for their care? Miles away from familiar faces and places?
I am absolutely determined to improve the care these children receive. Whether a young person is placed in a children’s home (in or out of their authority); whether that home is privately run - as nearly three quarters of homes now are - or run by a local authority. What matters most is that they have the care, support and protection they need.
Finally, in adoption I want to make sure we keep peeling away the bureaucratic layers that come between children and families:
Already, we have signalled our intention to reduce delays by encouraging fostering for adoption - as we see right here in East Sussex;
We’re challenging the orthodoxy that says waiting to find a perfect ethnic match for a child is more important than rapidly settling them with loving, capable parents;
We’re speeding up the prospective adopter assessment process and we are setting up the national gateway for adoption. Giving couples who are interested in adoption a clear, welcoming starting point for the most important journey they will ever embark on.
And we’re working to end the glacial court processes that leave children waiting so long for placements: bringing key organisations including local authorities, the judiciary, the courts service and Cafcass into the new Family Justice Boards. Challenging everyone to bring care proceedings down to 26 weeks.
These are sweeping reforms, designed to give some of our most vulnerable children and young people a stable, loving home and the support they need to achieve their potential.
I will continue pushing for more progress where you need it most, but I’ll also look to local authorities to take a lead. 2013 must be the year that we make real, sustained progress on improving the prospects for vulnerable young people.
After two years of reform in young people’s services: giving local areas the autonomy they requested over budgets and operational priorities; reducing red tape; and reforming social work practice - the attention has to shift from central government to local.
We need councils to be strong and confident leaders, to focus on developing professional capabilities in their own areas and to be ready to innovate.
These really are radical changes squarely aimed at putting the power of decision making back in your hands. Councils need to believe it is going to happen, and be ready to take up the challenge.
To support this work, the Local Government Association, Association of Directors of Children’s Services and SOLACE are running the Children’s Improvement Board to develop a model of sector-led support, leadership and challenge that is based around rigorous, honest and open self assessment.
We expect the CIB to be ambitious and well organised in its approach, and we have instructed it to pay particular attention to early help and to supporting areas where there has been any serious service failure.
But looking forward, there’s also considerable scope for local areas themselves to spread best practice more widely: there are literally hundreds of individual examples to copy, learn from and lionise.
I visited Hackney Council as part of a cross-party inquiry into the educational attainment of children in care, and I can promise you the reclaiming social work approach looks as good in practice as it does on paper.
In Telford, I know Laura Johnston and her team have very successfully appointed a principal child and family social worker with a background in, and responsibility for, both adults and children’s services.
In fact wherever you look - North or South, East or West - innovation is flourishing in social work with many councils - like Northumberland, Halton, North Yorkshire, Central Bedfordshire and Coventry - reforming services and improving training.
These kinds of developments show real progress. We are seeing innovation; local solutions to local problems; and an emphasis on early intervention, learning, quality, child-centred practice and professional development.
I know many other local areas are following suit: taking advantage of Eileen Munro’s excellent reforms to radically change the way they work.
Let me finish by saying that I am 100 per cent committed to guiding these reforms through to completion, including looking at the guidance on national timescales for assessment and improving working together.
My number one priority - whatever it takes - is to make sure vulnerable children are given the opportunity and encouragement to succeed. If this means giving local areas more autonomy or pushing through more reform, I will do it.
But I know, as well as anyone, that Whitehall does not have a monopoly on solutions.
Over the last 23 years, successive governments have invested huge energy into reducing the gap between children in care and their peers. Since 1989, 16 separate bills, codes, regulatory papers and reviews have been passed through Parliament to try and improve the prospects for children in care.
We can legitimately ask: where has this focus on centrally-led government left us? Too often, good intentions have been let down by bad systems.
So we found ourselves in a position where there is a nationwide shortage of adoptive parents and foster carers. Making it more difficult for councils to find placements. Teachers were hampered by excessive red tape and falling standards in exams. Social workers were muddling through reams of clumsy guidance and process: limiting their ability to deal with families direct.
This is why there was this change in emphasis towards localism in 2010. It is why one of the first things I did when I became minister was to ask my office to book me visits to as many different councils and services as possible.
Time and again, it is local councils, local leaders and local staff proving that children in care can and do succeed when the right people, systems and attitudes are in place.
Let me thank you all for the progress you have made over the past year. I look forward to working with you over the coming months. I thank you for the huge amount of work you have done over the last two years. And I want to assure you that I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge local councils face.
You are operating under the most difficult of economic climates. In many cases you are achieving more with less, delivering for young people who, through no fault of their own, need your support.
I share your desire and commitment to help them turn their lives around.