Thanks Ruth (Smith, Content Director, Community Care), it’s good to be back and speaking alongside my colleague Norman (Lamb, Minister of State at the Department of Health).
Norman and I have worked together very positively over the last year on a whole host of issues, including special educational needs reform, parent carers, and perhaps most closely on helping to improve support for young carers through the Children and Families Act - a great testament, alongside better support for care leavers, to the commitment across government to a brighter future for our most vulnerable children.
And there’s other progress - achieved with your help - of which we can be proud.
Adoptions are up. The length of care proceedings is down. And 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.
Having called for this change when on the backbenches, I’m personally delighted that 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.
So, across a range of areas, we’re taking action and making a difference.
But the simple truth is we can’t do it without you.
Crucial role of social workers
I know from my own experience of growing up and living with children in care, the challenges you confront each day, but also the huge rewards when lives are turned around.
So I can only echo Norman’s admiration and gratitude - and that of the Prime Minister - for the crucial work that you do.
It’s every bit as crucial as the work of other frontline professionals - doctors, nurses, police and firefighters - who save lives. But, as we know, it doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves.
I said last year that I was determined to change this.
To cut red tape and free you up to put children’s needs first.
To champion and challenge you as never before, so that you can do what you came into this job to do - the very best for children in your care.
And it’s right to acknowledge that we’ve seen gradual improvements in recent years, but the prospects of children in care still lag well behind their peers.
Like you, I’m keen for us to do better than this - much better. For us to go further and faster in lifting life chances.
Which means trusting you - as we do other professionals in health and education - to innovate and raise standards - and not just when things are going wrong - as is too often the case - but when they’re going right.
Which is precisely the thinking behind the new Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme.
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.
We’ll help develop, test and look to expand the most promising schemes; providing whatever tailored support is needed.
We welcome proposals for all areas of care, but we’ve decided to focus particularly on 2: rethinking support for adolescents in or on the edge of care, and rethinking how children’s social work operates.
We know that traditional working arrangements don’t always serve you or those in your care well; squeezing time with families, with not enough supervision or professional development for staff and often with the least skilled and experienced social workers weighed down with some of the biggest responsibilities.
Successful team models like Hackney’s Reclaiming Social Work demonstrate that there’s a better way. And it’s encouraging to see that we’ve already received some proposals for the innovation programme in this area.
But the innovation programme isn’t just about supporting a bright idea here and there.
It’s about creating the conditions where innovation can thrive throughout the system. Increasing incentives to excel. Removing blocks that stand in your way. And allowing the best in the field to expand and spread what works.
This isn’t - as you may have read over the weekend - about privatisation. At the moment, local authorities are accountable for statutory children’s social work. And I want to be clear - the government has absolutely no plans to change this. But we are asking whether high-quality services could be delivered by a wider range of organisations.
We’re not talking about turning children’s services over whole-scale to large companies with no expertise in this area - that is very much a misrepresentation of our ambition.
Councils already have all sorts of other statutory responsibilities that they don’t provide in-house. They instead draw on the expertise, innovation and capacity of a range of other organisations - in the voluntary sector and from small- and medium-sized social enterprises.
Not so children’s social work.
Let’s say, for instance, that you wanted to set up a small social work practice - a bit like a GP practice - with other social workers at the heart of your community.
An independent organisation - a charity or a mutual - to which the council delegated powers. You’d be able to shape its approach and ethos to provide the outstanding services that you entered the profession to deliver.
Yet, the law says you can’t do it.
Or perhaps you’ve got specialist expertise or a passion for a particular area - FGM, for example, or teenage victims of trafficking - and you think: “There must be a better way of doing this.”
You might imagine channelling that commitment into a new kind of organisation - say a social care trust which brings together professionals from different disciplines, working alongside social workers assessing and developing support for young people - able to work across council and other boundaries in a new specialist service.
Yet, the law says you can’t do it.
And that law means that children’s social workers have been denied the freedoms that other professions have enjoyed, in many cases, for decades.
Freedoms that have allowed GPs to set up their own practices as the bedrock of the NHS.
Or that have allowed teachers to invest their passion and talent into developing schools they’re proud to work in and that better serve their local communities.
We want these freedoms available in children’s social care as well.
Indeed in some areas of children’s social care, they already exist.
In November last year we granted new freedoms to local authorities to delegate their functions for children in care and care leavers to third parties - which means that social workers for children in care will have a choice to either work for local authorities or for organisations that carry out functions on the council’s behalf.
But I must be honest. This wasn’t my idea - or even this government’s idea.
The changes made in November were the culmination of work started by the previous government back in 2008.
We took it forward because we know from what’s happening in pilots on the frontline that it works.
Innovation on the ground
We can see Staffordshire, for example, breaking new ground with the Evolve YP social work model. It’s an approach which can deliver high-quality services. Indeed Ofsted judged Staffordshire to be ‘good’ under the new single inspection regime. And I saw for myself how well-deserved this was during a recent visit - even more so when I was told by social workers and personal advisers at Evolve YP that Ofsted inspectors spent proportionately more time scrutinising them than with the rest of children’s services.
It’s one of the reasons I have confidence in the service provided in Staffordshire - while the way the service is run has changed, there’s no difference in the way Ofsted inspects how the functions are carried out. At least the same safeguards and accountabilities are in place even when third party providers like Evolve YP are used.
Which is why we’re consulting on extending these freedoms beyond children in care to all children’s social care functions.
We know that a number of local authorities are eager to see how these freedoms might help them do what they do even better.
We know, for example, that Staffordshire is keen to go further and give staff and those in their care a bigger say in how services are run.
Kingston and Richmond are also pushing up against current restrictions. The 2 authorities recently launched a really radical partnership to deliver children’s services through a community interest company that’s free to innovate, offer consultancy and plough any surplus back into children’s services.
The innovation programme can help you work around red tape or other traditionally obdurate barriers. Let me give you the example of North Yorkshire. They’ve redesigned their residential and edge of care services, making them heavily focussed on the individual, their needs and ambitions, and less consumed by time-sapping processes and short-term fixes - the result? A 50% rise in the number of young people they support, while also achieving significant cost savings.
North Yorkshire now wants to go further and we’ve given it an innovation programme seed grant to support this - to develop a proposal to help all adolescents across the county, regardless of the type of placement, get help from the same team of staff from local children’s homes.
Other authorities and organisations have also approached us about setting up specialist services for adolescents that cut across budgetary and organisational boundaries, making everybody involved unashamedly geared towards the quality, personalised and well planned delivery of these vital services.
These ambitious efforts will be greatly boosted by the wider freedoms that we’re proposing.
But we’re not just leaving innovation to those on the ground.
Isabelle Trowler, our first Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, has begun implementing recommendations from Sir Martin Narey’s review of children’s social work training.
This important work has 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. Sir Martin’s analysis will be central to the reform of initial social work education - another area where Norman and I - and our officials - are working together on fundamental and positive change.
Isabelle is now leading work to identify what a children’s social worker needs to know and be able to do - the first of his recommendations. She’s working with child and family social workers who do this job every day to produce a definition, which we’ll be consulting on this July. It’s important we get this right, so do please contribute.
We want to do all we can to better support and equip you for the very demanding challenges you face.
Because I’m under no illusions about the pressures you’re under.
We know, for example, that there’s been an unusually high turnover of directors of children’s services in recent times - something which Ofsted noted in their annual report.
We want to do all we can to help local authorities address this and attract talented leaders who can drive outstanding services. Which is why I’ve asked Sir Martin Narey to look at what more we can do to support the sector on this issue.
But as well as doing more to support those already in the profession, we want to recruit even more bright, committed people to join you.
Which is why we’re supporting fast-track training programmes like Frontline, which aims to do for social work what Teach First has done for teaching.
This visionary and innovative scheme attracted 2,700 applications from top graduates for its first 108 places - an indication that we can raise aspiration in children’s social care.
Step up to Social Work is doing great stuff - attracting high-achieving graduates and career changers, 415 of them now trained as social workers, with another 308, training in 75 local authorities, in the pipeline.
An impressive 93% of those in the second cohort got a job in social work, according to an evaluation by Kings College London - which compares very favourably to other routes into the profession , and is further evidence of why we’re right to focus on driving up candidate and training quality.
But it’s worth remembering that when it launched in 2010, Step Up was seen as controversial and ground-breaking. A daring leap.
Focus on outcomes
And that’s exactly the leap I’m asking you to make when I urge you to contribute your best ideas to the innovation programme.
Or when I ask you to consider how you might use the new freedoms we’re proposing.
This is entirely in your hands. Plenty of local authorities are delivering good services and they won’t necessarily want to use the new freedoms. And that’s fine - they don’t have to.
It’s the outcomes you achieve, not the structures you work in, that interest me.
I have no intention of imposing new structures or approaches - unless, as we’ve seen with Doncaster, long-term, deep-seated failings demand a new way forward.
What I am determined to do, through the innovation programme and these changes, is to trust you - as we trust teachers, GPs and other frontline professionals - with the freedoms you need to find new and better ways to serve the most vulnerable children in our society - which, after all, is the reason we’re all here today.
I am delighted that Clive Cowdery, entrepreneur and passionate believer in social justice, who himself grew up in care, has agreed to lead the innovation programme for us. Clive will head an independent board which will advise on proposals and keep us focused on the best outcomes for children.
It’s not about ideology. It’s about what works.
It’s about being “creative and thoughtful about solutions where authorities are failing.” About asking how we can “combine the skills of local authorities with the best of the voluntary and commercial sector.”
These aren’t my words. They’re the words of Alan Wood, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and also Director of Children Services in Hackney.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
It only remains for me to thank you once again for the incredible, inspiring, life-changing work that you do, day in day out.
I want to make this job easier and more satisfying by freeing you to do whatever it takes to help children who often have no one else to turn to.
I hope very much that we can continue to work together to give them the love, stability and the opportunities they deserve - nothing more, nothing less than we want for our own children.