The Children and Families Minister talks about how social work reform and innovation can help better protect vulnerable children.
Thank you, Peter [Wanless, Chief Executive, NSPCC]. It’s a real privilege and delight to be back - not just at this conference, but also as Children and Families Minister.
And at the outset I want to say how pleased I am to personally see our work to protect vulnerable children recognised at a more senior Minister of State level, and also now explicitly extended across government to include my colleague Karen Bradley’s role at the Home Office, whom you’ll hear from shortly.
I think it shows, as a government, just how serious a commitment we have to protecting our most vulnerable children.
But I’ll be honest - before the election, I wasn’t sure how likely it was that I would be returning to this role.
As a fan of the book ‘Freakonomics’, I’d been trying to calculate the probability of
- a) being re-elected and
- b) being re-elected and given back the job I’ve loved doing
and what actually drove me into politics in the first place. After some serious number crunching I calculated that it was lower than 10%.
And so it is with a sense of genuine surprise that I find myself back at the Department for Education, and delighted by the warm welcome given to my reappointment as Children’s Minister - and, believe me, no-one is more thrilled than me.
I think most of you know I’ve lived and worked with children in care all my life, and therefore it comes as no surprise that I consider the protection of vulnerable children to be the most profound responsibility we have as a society.
That’s why we’ve worked so hard to strengthen the child protection system - not with headline gimmicks and knee-jerk reactions, but with major reforms to social worker recruitment and assessment, and an ambitious drive for innovation throughout the system.
We’ve seen the first independent children’s trust in Doncaster, freeing up local authorities so that they can set up new models of delivery themselves, as they’ve also done in Richmond and Kingston.
And in that shared endeavour, I want to thank all of you here today for working with us so positively.
Child sexual abuse and NSPCC report
We’re proud to continue supporting the NSPCC’s work, particularly through ChildLine, which does so much to give vulnerable children a voice - and we can hear that voice coming loud and clear through your report [‘How safe are our children?’] today and from the NSPCC young campaigners a few moments ago.
We’ve learned all too painfully in recent years about children’s cries which went unheard - for years and years. The horrific stories of child sexual exploitation now being uncovered around the country rightly shame the nation.
With the help of the NSPCC and many brave victims, we’ve been able to shine a light on a police and social care system set up to protect children, but that all too often turned them away, leaving them in the hands of callous abusers. As a society - and as a government - we’ve had to face up to some awful truths in the past few years. And face up to them we must.
And perhaps we are now starting to see the signs of societal shift in the way we view, recognise, react and deal with child sexual abuse because, terrible though it is to read the numbers in your report - the 124% increase in calls to ChildLine about sexual abuse since 2013 to 2014 - it’s at least encouraging to see the increased willingness of victims to come forward. And we know now that the police and other professionals will take it seriously when they do.
Horrible though it is to hear court case after appalling court case, at least it means that justice is being done - and that any perpetrators out there know it too.
And it’s because of the particularly awful nature of these crimes, and society’s failure to prosecute them and protect the victims for so long that we’ve made child sexual abuse a national priority for the police, putting child sexual abuse right up there alongside serious and organised crime on their agenda.
And it’s also why the Prime Minister has appointed Karen Bradley as a minister in the Home Office to tackle it alongside me - recognition that child sexual abuse is about child protection, yes, but also about prosecution too.
It sends a strong message that we mustn’t let up in our efforts to tackle these shocking crimes.
Centre of Expertise
And in doing so, we also have to offer support to the victims long after the perpetrators are jailed - which is why we’re establishing a new Centre of Expertise to understand what works when it comes to tackling and preventing child sexual abuse.
The strides that the NSPCC and others have made to improve our understanding about this have been hugely valuable, but it’s clear that we can do more.
So I’m confident that the centre will help us build on this expertise and help all those working with children to improve practice - highlighting the signs to look out for, the consequences of sexual abuse and providing best evidence on how to support victims.
But, of course, child sexual abuse doesn’t happen in isolation. Too often it goes hand in hand with neglect.
We, as children’s social care professionals, must not forget that child neglect is by far the most prevalent form of abuse. As your report says, it’s still the most common reason for being on a child protection plan in all 4 nations. I agree that ‘while CSE is dominating the media, we must not lose sight of neglect’.
It’s why we’re looking at having a campaign to encourage the public to report all forms of child abuse and neglect.
Because it’s only through this greater recognition of, and confidence to, challenge abuse that we can really begin to keep children safe.
Just before the election we issued some guidance about how to recognise abuse and neglect, particularly in young children.
It’s brief and clear and intended for all frontline professionals - in schools, police, nurseries, the health service. I’d be grateful if everyone here could help us to get it out there. Just make sure everyone you know who works with children is aware of it and has read it. If you search online for ‘What to do if you are worried a child is being abused’, you’ll find it.
Social work reform
But at the heart of good child protection is, of course, good social workers.
Sitting at the top of my in-tray is a decision about the introduction of a new assessment and accreditation system for children’s social workers - something that offers a rigorous means of assuring the public that social workers, who work with the children and families at greatest risk and facing the most complex problems, have the knowledge and skills needed to do the job.
And we see this applying not just to frontline practitioners, but also to practice supervisors - they’re making life-changing decisions every day about children’s futures.
And we see it also applying, most crucially, to practice leaders - the most senior social workers in each local area, who are responsible for ensuring that good social workers are working in effective practice systems which properly protect and support those in their care.
Improving frontline practice is the key to really transforming lives.
And having seen the pressures of social work up close and personal whilst growing up with my adopted and foster siblings, I appreciate just how much tenacity, commitment, care and sheer hard work this takes.
There are now 686 social workers who’ve been trained through the Step Up programme, and 101 potential leaders in training with Frontline. I’ve met some of them and seen them put through their paces. These are impressive people, determined and dedicated like so many social workers across the country to make a difference to vulnerable children’s lives.
And then there are the incentives we’re providing for new kinds of teaching partnerships to improve recruitment and retention.
But, whatever the route into child protection, our priority must be to make sure that social workers are being taught the right things, in the right way, by the right people.
And our ambition for the quality of the workforce is matched by our ambition to encourage new ways of working, freeing systems up to improve when they are good, intervening strongly when they are inadequate.
I’m especially keen to see much closer working between the voluntary sector and local authorities - something the Children’s Social Care Innovation programme is encouraging and seeing take root.
As you’ll know, this programme aims to help develop and spread new, more effective ways of supporting vulnerable children - to identify organisations who, with their strong, creative leadership and proven track records, can be the leading lights for future children’s services across England.
When I spoke here last year, I invited you to get involved and come forward with your best, boldest, most ambitious ideas, with the promise to back the most promising schemes.
And it’s fair to say I’ve been impressed by the response.
We now have 53 projects up and running all over the country; spanning everything from the redesign of frontline services to small-scale projects targeting specific groups of children or areas of service:
- improving therapeutic support for victims of child sexual exploitation in County Durham
- supporting a new specialist foster carer service in South Yorkshire that aims to protect children at risk of sexual exploitation
- and supporting a project in Hackney that strives to prevent repeat pregnancies for women whose children have been taken into care, disrupting that destructive cycle and giving them the opportunity to turn their lives around
And it’s also pleasing to see that 2 of these projects funded by the innovation programme involve the NSPCC.
There’s the £1.2 million initiative with SCIE - The Social Care Institute for Excellence - that aims to help us learn better from serious case reviews (SCRs) and improve their quality, and which includes a pilot to improve how SCRs are commissioned.
As you know, we’ve made greater transparency and sharper analysis in serious case reviews a priority, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results of this valuable work.
And then there’s the £1 million funding for the NSPCC to introduce the New Orleans intervention model in south London - which aims to improve services for children under 5 who are in foster care because of maltreatment by promoting joint commissioning across children’s social work and CAMHS teams.
A great example of exactly the sort of genuine integration that could work for vulnerable children and those supporting them if we just think a bit differently.
Character and resilience
Now, you may not know - because you’re busy working and why should you read lists of ministerial jobs - that my brief has been extended to include character and resilience. I want to finish by outlining my approach to that important aspect of child development, which in itself can help reduce the vulnerability of young people.
We’ve placed a greater emphasis on helping children not only achieve academically, but develop the qualities and life skills that will give them a strong foundation for social life as well.
Life skills that give them the self-esteem to know when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’. That give them the confidence to speak up. And that give them reserves they can draw on when faced with the seemingly unfaceable.
All these things are even more crucial and, in my view, more likely to be missing when a child is being abused or neglected.
So I’m looking forward to seeing how our work on character education might inform and support our work on child protection and would welcome your views too.
Children are growing up in a world that has changed immeasurably since we were children - especially with the march of technology and the new opportunities, but also the pressures and risks, that it brings.
We need to equip them with the means to engage with this new social world creatively, knowledgeably and positively.
We cannot expect a 10-year-old to be resilient to online pressure if we do not teach him or her to be so. We cannot be surprised or shocked when a teenager posts something silly online and it zips around the world, trapping his or her identity forever - if we haven’t taught her the consequences in advance.
So there’s a need to get better and smarter about how we equip our sons and daughters with the attributes they need to find their feet today and truly flourish. I know that Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State, is passionate about this, as am I.
I started by saying what a privilege it was to be back in government as Children and Families Minister. But the responsibility that comes with it is not lost on me. I’m pragmatist and simply want to do what’s best by and for children, wherever they are and whatever their circumstances.
But in achieving that objective we need to move forward together, recognising where we can do better, and being prepared to face up to the challenges of keeping our children safe.