Thanks, Tam (Baillie, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People), it’s good to be back - at a time of year that, for me, has long had fond associations with the NSPCC.
I ran my first ever London marathon for the NSPCC 16 years ago and I’m in training, at the moment, for this year’s marathon. In fact, I gave my first ever speech to the NSPCC in 1999 - the week before running my second marathon - when I was invited in to explain what those running it for the first time, as well as for the NSPCC, could expect to endure.
Whether anyone heeded my words of wisdom I’m not sure. But 15 years and 10 marathons later, my advice remains the same: remember who you’re doing it for. Because when you’re flagging and crunching through the pain and being overtaken by a man in a chicken suit, few things will spur you on as remembering why you’re running - to support our most vulnerable children.
It’s a pretty useful rule for my political life too and for the work you do too.
Because, all of us, in our own ways; whether it’s tackling a marathon, shaking a collection tin, helping a family get back on track or even running the NSPCC, do what we do to make vulnerable children’s lives better.
And so I can’t thank you enough for your efforts.
Having lived and worked with children in care for much of my own life, I’ve seen first-hand what’s at stake and the often complex challenges you face.
The NSPCC has been a powerful advocate for children in need for many years. And through ever-sharper insight and questioning of the status quo, it continues to push us all to raise our game. So I want to say how grateful I am for the constructive if challenging way you’ve worked with us to give our children a brighter future.
As the report being published today shows, this country has made major strides over the years in keeping children safer. So while it might not always feel like it, progress is possible - indeed it’s being achieved every day - and we should never forget that.
In central government we’re trying to play our part. The Children and Families Act, which does so much to champion vulnerable children, has just received royal assent. And we can see it’s already having an impact.
Adoptions are up. The length of care proceedings is down.
We’re making it possible for all young people leaving care to stay with their former foster families, if they wish, until their 21st birthday.
As someone who called for this change whilst on the backbenches, I’m personally delighted we’ve been able to deliver it - as I am that we’re more than doubling the amount that children in care get through the pupil premium plus to give them extra support at school. This has just risen to £1,900 and virtual school heads, made statutory by the act, will ensure this money works as hard as possible.
And we’ve been tough on the serious case review system as well - pressing hard for greater transparency and clearer analysis when things have gone wrong; not in order to brand individuals with a mark of shame, but in order to learn as much as we possibly can from past mistakes, and in doing so, improve practice and, ultimately, outcomes for vulnerable children.
I’m hugely grateful to the NSPCC for their offer to act as a repository for SCRs to help us go further in drawing out lessons which can be disseminated to frontline professionals about issues such as domestic violence and the unwillingness of parents to co-operate.
This promises to be a really valuable resource. SCRs represent a growing body of knowledge, of crucial insights, that we should all be tapping into. But, until now, there’s been no way of pulling this together in a way that’s accessible and meaningful, so I very much appreciate your efforts to make this easier.
And it’s because of this emphasis on transparency that we’re seeing increased public awareness of abuse and neglect and an increased willingness among victims to speak out.
Remember, that ability to recognise neglect and willingness to challenge it - whether from the victim, a teacher, the police or health professionals - is the first step in the battle to keep children safe.
When public and professional awareness increases - as it is doing, partly through our insistence on publishing SCRs - it can appear, on the face of it, that neglect is ‘on the increase’. Of course that is a concern, but dig deeper behind the headline figures and we can see that it means people are beginning to recognise it and to challenge it.
The same thing happened over the past few years with child sexual exploitation - a few years back, most people hadn’t really heard of it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t happening. It meant it was being ignored.
And it’s because I want to raise public and professional awareness of the signs of neglect that the Department is working with a panel of experts to identify indicators of neglect in younger children.
In the same spirit - that greater awareness leads to more reporting and more support from the child protection system - I welcome the increasing numbers of children being put on child protection plans and increasing numbers of core assessments. This is not necessarily in itself a sign of ‘more neglect’, ‘more abuse’ - but can be, as Peter (Wanless, Chief Executive, NSPCC) said, a sign that we are tackling it better.
However, more children being protected demands greater agility and creativity in the way we protect them.
We need to be smarter about recognising risk and managing it - something I know the NSPCC is working on through its evaluation of the graded care profile. And also through its research into the signs of safety model.
And, as Eileen Munro recognised, we also need to free up the child protection system and liberate professionals from some of the avoidable processing activity which constrains them, in order to put children’s needs first.
Indeed, some of our local authorities have made the same plea to me: free us up so that we can go further. So that we can do better.
That’s why I’m leading a drive for innovation in children’s services. It’s right to say that innovation and diversity has transformed other public services, including our schools. We want to do the same for children’s services.
The challenges we face are well-known.
Despite gradual improvements, the overall performance of children’s social care is still too variable and fragile.
Yes there’ve been some advances, for example, in educational outcomes for children in care. But their prospects continue to lag well behind those of their peers, with a yawning gap - 43 percentage points - between them and results for all children.
Social work reform
And as with the teaching profession in the past, the public status of social workers, despite the hugely demanding and critical job that they do, is still too low.
That’s why we’ve appointed the first Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, Isabelle Trowler, to help drive up standards in practice and to be a standard bearer for the profession, both as a champion and a challenger.
And, through Sir Martin Narey’s review of social work training, we’ve shone a light on the need to recruit more great people into the profession and to be clearer about the skills and knowledge that are needed.
Isabelle has already begun to implement his recommendations, starting with work on what a children’s social worker should know to practice effectively.
Isabelle is also looking at a licence to practice system, where skills are tested after the first year in practice and then potentially re-tested at intervals after that. We expect it of doctors; we should expect it of social workers.
And we’re also supporting fast-track training programmes like step up to social work and frontline, which aim to do for social work what Teach First has done for teaching.
Frontline, for example - a visionary and innovative new training programme for social work leaders - has got off to a flying start, with 2,700 applications from top graduates for its first 108 places.
This work, plus the wealth of information in the recent social work census - the first clear picture of what’s happening in the profession - will help drive the profession forward.
Spending and outcomes
But there is a lot more we need to do - in particular, to better understand the relationship between spending and outcomes. We’ve been doing some work on this too.
Because we can see that some areas spend less than the national average, but achieve above average outcomes. Whereas, in others, including some in intervention, like Birmingham and Doncaster, it’s the other way around.
It’s crucial that we really get to the bottom of what sits behind these contrasting councils’ fortunes and those of their children.
What it does suggest is that there’s scope for better quality and better outcomes as well as better value for money - what all of us surely want ,especially given the pressures on the system.
Despite the tough financial climate, to date, spend on children’s social care has generally been protected in local authorities. But we mustn’t assume that can continue for ever - or that it can increase exponentially with the numbers of children being protected.
Innovation and public services
Which is why I’m driving for greater innovation in the system: we must improve standards and we must recognise spending pressures as well.
And it’s innovation - fresh thinking, new ideas, creative leaps - not simply changes in rules and regulations - that will ultimately unlock the bold advances, the faster improvement, the real and enduring impact on life chances that we all want to see.
In education, in particular, we’ve seen how unshackling teachers has helped turn around some of our most challenging schools.
Transforming the achievements of disadvantaged children and, through the brilliant teach first scheme, transforming the standing and calibre of the teaching profession.
And nowhere is this more true than here in London.
Children in care in the capital have among the best prospects in education, work and further study than anywhere else in the country.
Which is why I’m convinced that all of you, who are so passionately committed to our most vulnerable children, should also have more freedom to innovate. And why I believe that there’s the potential to achieve so much more in children’s social care.
Why should this area be excluded from the enterprise and excellence that we’ve seen improve schools across the capital? There is, arguably, no area that needs it more.
And I’m encouraged that I’m not alone in thinking this.
Many of the sessions at this conference focus rightly on innovation; reflecting an appetite well beyond to look afresh at the challenges, make the most of precious resources and do things differently - in local authorities, in voluntary organisations and elsewhere.
There’s social work practice breaking new ground in Staffordshire.
Kent has formed a new partnership with Coram, the children’s charity, and sent adoption rates soaring.
High-performing authorities are providing support and challenge to weaker neighbours, as in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
And last week we saw the launch of the new Richmond and Kingston children’s services partnership - a truly innovative model which will see services delivered through a community interest company freed to innovate and make profits, to offer consultancy and plough any profits back into children’s services.
It’s a great achievement and I applaud Nick Whitfield and his team for getting it off the ground.
It mirrors the work we have been driving in Doncaster; providing the best leadership and new ways of working through a trust model.
I want to see this kind of enterprise and pursuit of excellence become the norm, and so we need a much more determined effort to promote innovation in children’s services.
I want it to happen not just when things are going wrong, but when they’re going right.
It’s interesting that, in the NHS, the better hospitals improve the fastest. In children’s social care, it’s the lower-performing authorities which improve the fastest. Until now, that is where we have focused our improvement efforts.
We spend vast amounts of our energy, focus and funding on following process and avoiding failure at the bottom end of the scale, with few incentives and levers to spur innovation and spread excellence all the way up.
It’s clear, from problem analysis carried out by my Department, that this is seriously holding us back from making the significant and sustained gains that all of us are striving for.
And leaving our most disadvantaged children missing out on fresh approaches that could make a big difference to their future prospects.
Which is why I’m determined to increase the incentives to excel and innovate.
And why I’m committed to backing you all the way in pushing the boundaries on behalf of our young people.
This is precisely the thinking behind the new children’s social care innovation programme launched last year.
The aim is to help develop and spread new, more effective ways of supporting vulnerable children, with £30 million available in 2014 to 2015 and much more to follow in 2015 to 2016, if the ideas are there to merit it.
We want people from every area - local authorities, social enterprises, companies, not-for-profit bodies - to come forward with their most ambitious, most adventurous ideas.
Ideas that drive better outcomes, better value for money and have the potential to spark innovation right across the system.
We’ll help develop, test and look to expand the most promising schemes; providing tailored support, whether by brokering partnerships, addressing regulatory barriers - whatever is needed - to get them off the ground.
People have already started approaching us with initiatives in areas from risk assessment to foster care - practical, workable initiatives that show real flair and a hunger to change things for the better.
Proposals from all areas of children’s social care are welcome, but as a starting point, we’ve decided to focus on two areas: more effective support for vulnerable adolescents in care or on the edge of care and alternative models for social work practice.
As we know, adolescents often have highly complex needs and make up the bulk of children in residential care, which is where 9% of all children in care are placed - and where a third of our total spending on children in care goes. I’m sure we can do much better.
And when it comes to social work, traditional working arrangements often see the least skilled and experienced social workers weighed down with some of the biggest responsibilities.
An outdated model that squeezes precious time with families and doesn’t involve enough supervision or professional development.
Successful team models like Hackney’s reclaiming social work and Evolve YP in Staffordshire demonstrate that there is a better way.
And it’s encouraging to see that we’ve already received some proposals in both these areas.
Of course not every venture will take off, but I’m excited to see what inspiring and ingenious projects come forward and make it through.
So feel free to really go for it and get in touch. My officials are here today and are happy to speak to you and they’ll also be hosting a Q&A session as part of tomorrow’s agenda.
£10,000 innovation developments grants are currently available to help nurture ideas in their early stages. And we’ll shortly be releasing details about how you can apply for significantly larger sums as well as for other support.
But the innovation programme isn’t just about providing support.
Removing barriers to innovation
It’s also about you challenging us to remove the barriers that are standing in your way, so that we can give the best in the field more freedom to expand and spread what you know works.
This could mean a bigger role, for example, for voluntary adoption agencies. Following legislatives changes in the Children and Families Act, these agencies can now do more to complement the work of the best local authorities and help more needy children find a loving home for good.
It could also mean changes to the regulatory framework - we can already see forward-thinking local authorities such as Richmond and Kingston pushing up against current restrictions.
These councils and others are eager to go further; to try new things; to work more closely with voluntary organisations or develop new third party providers, to deliver better services.
The system should be supporting such ambition, not getting in the way - and we’re looking at how best to make this happen.
But this isn’t just about structures and systems, rules and regulations. It’s about aspiration; about the hopes and fears of children in need. It should be about doing whatever it takes to make these children safer and to give them the love, security and opportunities we want for our own children.
I know, from my own family and professional experience, that your work to support them is among the most challenging in our society - you have my deepest gratitude for all you do.
And this drive for innovation is intended to ensure that you can do more; that nothing is holding you back from doing your very best for children in your care.
To secure not just gradual gains, but bigger, bolder, faster improvements that see valuable resources work harder.
To see you, as professionals, not just having to follow processes and play it safe for the sake of it, but channeling your expertise to really change lives.
Rather like standing on the start line of a marathon, the prospect of what lies ahead can be both exciting and daunting in equal measure.
But we’ve done this in other parts of public service. And I’m confident that with your talent and commitment we can do it in children’s services too - and do our most vulnerable children proud.