Thanks, Alan [Alan Wood CBE President of the Association of Director of Children Services], it’s a pleasure to be here.
It completes a happy hat trick of speeches for me at this annual conference.
When we last met in Harrogate a year ago, I launched the new children’s services Innovation Programme from this very platform and asked you, encouraged you, to come forward with your best ideas.
And in doing so, I asked you to consider an important question: “What stops me from doing things differently and better for our most vulnerable children?”
I challenged you to really push the boundaries; with no ambition too big, no leap too daring, no block insurmountable.
And in return I promised that we’d provide support to develop the most promising ideas and back you all the way if they proved to be truly transformative for children’s life chances as well as the way the system, as a whole, responds to their needs.
These weren’t throw away lines, empty rhetoric. I meant it.
That’s why I’m so delighted and reassured to see how you’ve really taken on that challenge in your fantastic response to the programme.
And it’s that response that I want to focus on today.
Now, there’s nothing new about the things that children tell us they need and the things we know they need - love, stability and support to be the best they can be.
But it’s clear that, despite some excellent work and a wealth of commitment and expertise, the system isn’t meeting those needs anywhere near as effectively, quickly and consistently as we’d all want - and the terrible events in Rotherham and the publication, yesterday, of the Coffey report are just the latest reminders of how far we have to go.
Which is why the work that Isabelle Trowler is doing to raise the status and quality of social work is so vital.
When I spoke here last year, Isabelle had been appointed as the first Chief Social Worker for Children and Families. And the Secretary of State Nicky Morgan spoke yesterday about the major programme of reform Isabelle’s been leading since then and announced important new measures that I’m confident will provide a further, significant boost for the profession.
Because it’s true that few things are as critical to outcomes as the quality of the workforce - from social workers on the frontline to the practice leaders we want to see at the top.
But this isn’t about the workforce applying their knowledge and skills by the book, fearful of failure.
It’s about practitioners, managers, commissioners, at all levels, having the capability and confidence to do things differently and really strive for excellence; taking as their starting point how it feels to be a child in the system and then reshaping systems and structures accordingly - and not just when things are going wrong, as is too often the case, but when they’re going right as well.
Which means trusting social workers - as we trust other professionals in education and health - to drive improvement from the ground up, to take services from adequate to good and from good to outstanding.
To do the job they came into the profession to do.
But this isn’t a view concocted up in Whitehall. I know that many of you here and beyond have not only come to the same conclusion, but are actively leading the way to make this happen - and I want to take this opportunity to thank you for all your efforts and level of ambition.
This focus on innovation and excellence, driven by what matters to children - early intervention, stability, high aspirations, support and timeframes built around their needs, not those of the system - rightly runs through all our reforms.
And I’m pleased to say that, with your help, we’ve reached a number of milestones over the past year, particularly with the passage of the Children and Families Act.
Record numbers of adoptions, with a 26% increase over the last 12 months - which adds up to a massive 63% rise over the past 3 years, helping reduce the delays and the backlog that blighted the adoption process.
We also have the first young people in care who’ll be supported to stay with their former foster carers beyond 18, thanks to the Staying Put arrangements that came into force in April.
Then there’s the once-in-a-generation changes to special educational needs that families who’ve trialled them say are transforming the support they receive - and reforming their relationships with professionals.
And it’s ultimately this shift in relationships and culture - not changes in the law, in regulations, structures or processes - that’s vital to successfully delivering these changes and delivering for the children and young people who are at their heart.
So I’m hugely encouraged to see this and hear about this shift starting to happen, especially when it comes to the SEN reforms. Parents and professionals are reporting that their engagement with one another is becoming more co-operative and far less adversarial as a result.
I recently met with parent carer forums and local authorities to discuss how the reforms were taking hold and while this culture shift isn’t something that can be easily charted or expressed in statistics, I could feel the difference in the room.
And we can see this changing dynamic reflected in some great local offers that are developing too.
In Portsmouth, they have click-throughs to information about every school, some accompanied by short films made by pupils.
In Oxfordshire, there’s a terrific animation showing what happens during the assessment process, something really valued by families.
And in Redcar and Cleveland, there’s a brilliant example of the sort of practical but accessible website that you get when parents are really linked into the process.
Of course, there will sometimes still be disagreements - though we hope far fewer.
But when they do happen, it’s important that there are sound arrangements to resolve them. Which is why we’re reviewing how well the current set-up is working with the Ministry of Justice - and working with the tribunal, with parents, young people and with councils to see how it might be improved.
And so I would argue that there are good grounds to be optimistic that the changes we’re making, not just to SEN, but across the board, will make a significant difference to some of our neediest children.
But I’m not complacent. I’m under no illusions about the pressures you face, with money tight and challenges mounting.
And I want to add my heartfelt gratitude to that expressed by the Secretary of State yesterday - and also by the Prime Minister - for the life-changing, indeed, life-saving work you do - work that’s among the most important in our society.
Ever since seeing the pressures of social work up close and personal whilst growing up in a foster family, I’ve admired the tenacity, dedication, care and sheer work ethic of social workers, all, it has to be said, necessary attributes.
And I know you’re as keen as I am to see this work having an even greater impact - to achieve bigger, faster, more enduring improvements. To go further still to give children who’ve often suffered great hurt and harm the love, support and opportunities we want for our own children.
Hence our decision to set up the Innovation Programme. This, as you know, aims to help develop and spread new, more effective ways of supporting vulnerable children.
I invited you, last year, to get involved and, as I said earlier, the way that you’ve stepped up is nothing short of phenomenal - almost 300 bids from all areas in England that span everything from the redesign of frontline services to small-scale projects targeting specific groups of children or areas of service.
Inspiring, adventurous, imaginative ideas that could revolutionise the way that children’s services are delivered.
Just over half of these bids come from local authorities, demonstrating just what’s possible when we unleash the ingenuity and enterprise that we all know is out there - and so I’m hugely grateful for the way in which you’ve risen to the challenge set.
But it’s good to see other organisations - public sector, private and voluntary - also putting up proposals, with around 1 in 6 representing entirely new entrants to children’s services.
It’s also welcome that many proposals centre on children’s social work and support for adolescents in or on the edge of care - the 2 areas that are a particular focus for the programme.
In all, we’ve so far shortlisted around 60 schemes and we’ll be letting every bidder know whether they’ve been successful in the next 2 weeks.
We’ll then be helping further develop shortlisted bids by providing innovators with whatever tailored support is needed and assessing them against clear criteria - including the potential to improve outcomes, value for money and the capacity of an organisation to deliver.
Those that make it through this stage will receive further support and challenge and, if they prove to genuinely trailblazing, will be considered by our very energetic and rigorous investment board, chaired by Clive Cowdery - who was himself raised in care and is a passionate champion of social justice.
The board also includes Isabelle and Alan and Councillor David Simmonds from the Local Government Association has also engaged very constructively with the programme ensuring we keep as many of you as possible plugged into the opportunities it presents.
So far, 4 bids have made it past this final hurdle and been given the go-ahead.
They include the London Triborough, which will get £4 million to help them completely redesign how they deliver children’s social care from within and from top to bottom, so that professionals can spend more time with children and families and so that practice is rooted in greater expertise and evidence.
There’s also the Pause project, based in Hackney, which is helping women who’ve had successive children taken into care. By interrupting repeat pregnancies, the project is giving women a chance to turn their lives around.
Having been a family barrister in the care system - on both sides legally - I know just how soul-destroying this cycle can be. And so I’m very pleased to be awarding £3 million to Pause, which will see Hackney working with 4 other local authorities to expand this programme further.
I can also tell you that we’re providing £4.8 million of funding for the Signs of Safety initiative headed by Professor Eileen Munro. This will involve 10 local authorities:
- West Sussex
- Tower Hamlets
rethinking processes, reporting structures and systems so that social workers can work more intensively with families.
The Signs of Safety approach has a strong international evidence base behind it and I look forward to seeing how this work progresses.
And I’m pleased to announce today that the fourth successful bid is North Yorkshire’s No Wrong Door approach, which we’re backing with £2 million of funding.
This will see specialist foster carers working alongside 2 children’s homes to provide better support - that includes help with mental health, education and rebuilding links with their families - for up to 700 young people across the authority.
The same team will stick with the young person no matter where they move through the system. And they’ll keep the door open to providing further support as young people leave care and start living independently.
North Yorkshire already has a track record in innovating with impact - having redesigned their residential and edge of care services and achieved a 50% rise in the number of young people they support - whilst also achieving significant cost savings in the process.
I saw the difference this approach is making for myself when I visited the area earlier this year and met a number of children in care and those leaving care as well as some foster carers.
So I’m hugely excited to see what this venture achieves - as I am about the others I’ve mentioned - and, of course, all those still to come through the pipeline.
So I challenged you last October to show me what you can do.
I promised to support you if you came up with the goods. And having seen many of the bid proposals there’s no question in my mind that you’re doing this with a degree of flair and ambition that’s surpassing all expectations.
And it’s with this in mind that I’m delighted to announce we’re increasing the money that’s available from £30 million this year to up to £100 million over the life of the programme.
This extra funding will help us support more of the proposals that you’ve submitted and help us really raise our game.
So if we return to that question that I posed last year - “What stops me from doing things differently and better for our most vulnerable children?”
The answer - I hope you’ll agree - is far fewer things than before.
With the funding and support we’re providing and with the recent move to give local authorities the freedom to delegate new social care functions to not-for-profit organisations, there has never been a better time to innovate and excel.
So don’t hold back.
Tell us if there are things that are still getting in your way.
Be inspired by No Wrong Door, Signs of Safety, Pause and Triborough and really go for it - not just through the programme, but in everything you do.
Because we need you to continue digging deep. Thinking radically. Coming up with ideas that break the mould.
Doing whatever it takes to find new and better ways of delivering for our most vulnerable children and leading the way to a brighter future for the young lives that are in your hands.