Thanks, Andrew (Webb, ADCS President), for that kind introduction.
And I’d like to thank Debbie Jones too for all the hard work she did as president, and to wish her the best in her new role at Ofsted (Regional Director London, Education, Learning and Skills). She was pretty good at calling me to account; I’m delighted she has moved on to doing the same to you!
It sometimes feels as if we in government are on a different side from you, but we’re not. All of us have the same interest at heart - protection of the most vulnerable children.
Your report, ‘What is care for?’ really emphasised that for me. The debate on that over the last year showed the ADCS at its best: willing to question old ways of doing things, and to look for new.
I want to see more of that. I agree with a lot of your analysis - the emphasis on outcomes, the focus on better models of delivery - and I want to work with you to explore these new ways of delivering services to our most vulnerable children.
Because as we all know, there is no area of local government more important - no duty of government more crucial.
Every child deserves parents who will protect and support them, who will encourage them to succeed, and pick them up when they stumble.
But sadly, as we all know, some children’s flesh and blood parents can’t or won’t.
And when those children are in desperate need, and have nowhere else to turn - when their past is painful, and their futures look bleak - it is our job to step in.
It is our job, all of us in this room, to be their ‘corporate’ parents, to take responsibility for those children’s lives and to do everything in our power to give them a brighter future, just as we would for our own children.
As many of you may know, I have some experience of what this means.
From the age of 7, I shared my home and my family with more than 80 foster children - many from incredibly difficult backgrounds, many with serious problems.
I saw and learnt a lot. Lots of swear words, it has to be said, not to mention the damage that can be caused by one small boy, my dad’s greenhouse and a stone.
But I also learnt that care, routine, warmth and safety, can work miracles. That, sadly, not everyone gets a fair start in life - but everyone deserves a fair chance.
When I grew up, I saw more of the complexities and challenges of the system - but that essential belief never wavered.
It stayed with me through 10 years as a family barrister, working day in and day out in the care system; through my move into politics, focusing on young people’s issues, through my appointment as Minister for Children, and hundreds of red boxes since then.
So I want to thank all of you, and your colleagues - lead members, chief executives, front line workers - for your hard work and dedication.
And to say how pleased I am to be working alongside you, giving thousands of fractured young lives that fair chance.
We must make sure that we leave no stone unturned to get a better deal for disadvantaged children and young people.
And although some local authorities are doing a great job - in a system that, all too often, leaves children in damaging situations for far too long - the figures at a national level are still shocking.
Only 15% of children in care get 5 good GCSEs including English and maths, compared to nearly 60% of other children.
Looked-after children are 3 times more likely to end up unemployed than their peers.
And 3 times more likely to suffer from a mental health condition.
Being good corporate parents
None of us would accept such appalling prospects for our own children - and, as corporate parents, we can’t accept them for children in care either.
Especially when it’s been proved, time and time again, by the best local authorities, that looked after children can succeed way over the odds, given the right support.
Support that puts their needs first - the need for protection, the need for stability and - when necessary - timely, intelligent intervention.
The same things that any child, in any family, needs from their parents - whether biological, adoptive or corporate.
Successes so far
That’s what lies at the heart of all our reforms, in every area affecting vulnerable children - from family courts to social work, the care system and adoption, fostering, special educational needs (SEN), child protection and social work.
And thanks to your leadership, we’ve already made some good progress.
Having been told that ‘no one reads ministerial letters,’ I was particularly pleased to see that my letter in October about giving care leavers a minimum £2,000 Setting Up Home Allowance has prompted a rise in the number of local authorities doing so from 32 to almost 100.
Over 100 local authorities have also now signed or are about to sign the Charter for Care Leavers, and have agreed to work with their local children in care council to turn its promises into reality.
These are really positive developments - and will be a massive help for care leavers as they move towards independence and adulthood.
As the Children and Families Bill continues its passage through the Lords, we’re starting to see changes on the ground.
We’ve already acted on many of the recommendations in Professor Eileen Munro’s widely-welcomed review of child protection.
The Working Together guidance has been revised along the lines she suggested - clarifying the core legal requirements on all professionals working to keep children safe, giving more scope to use professional judgement, and allowing greater flexibility in timescales, as many of you recommended.
Isabelle Trowler has been appointed as the first ever Chief Social Worker for Children and Families.
Step Up to Social Work has proved hugely successful - with the first 168 Step Up recruits now qualified as social workers and 80% working in the local authority where they trained - and offers twice as many places in the next cohort, across half of all local authorities.
And the new pilot programme Frontline is already proving hugely attractive, with over 1,400 enquiries in its first month.
Agreeing on the problems, working together on the solutions
But there’s still much more work to do. And I want to work with all of you to make our reforms a reality.
Because you are the ones delivering this change on the front line, finding innovative approaches and sharing best practice.
We’ve all identified the main problems:
- we need a sharper focus on young people’s prospects in life, not the system’s processes
- we need interventions to happen earlier, based on evidence of what works
- we need the care system, and other systems for vulnerable children, to be more flexible, responsive and joined-up
So at a national level, we’re putting in place the framework to give all of you more autonomy - greater local flexibility to focus on local priorities.
I know that it’s not always easy.
I think it’s fair to say that the system could never be described as responsive or nimble - less a powerboat, more a lumbering ocean liner.
And I know that you’re all feeling acute funding pressures. It’s a pressure that we’re all feeling, against a difficult economic backdrop that demands we make precious resources stretch further. In this economy, ordinary parents are feeling the pinch - no surprise that corporate parents are too.
The fact that so many of you are continuing to make strides in such difficult circumstances is impressive.
But as your own recent report on adolescents and care concluded, the current system - with its fragmentation and duplication - is not achieving value for money and is not achieving good results.
We must all work together to tackle both of those problems - doing everything we can with the resources we have.
One area where I hope government can make a real difference is in helping the various systems for vulnerable children and young people to become more joined up.
And in particular, encouraging the health service to play its part in improving outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs.
I know that many of you have found it difficult to work with the health service; that all too often health and social care have been running on twin tracks, not working as one.
For families this has meant endless battles on different fronts to get the support they need.
Which is why the new duty on health partners through education, health and care plans - to work with you in assessing and meeting a child or young person’s needs - is such a breakthrough.
This new, more joined up approach is already making a difference through the 20 local pathfinders trialling the SEN reforms, who are working with over 1,000 families across 31 local authorities.
Like Southampton, which has developed an integrated health and social care service which cuts right back on duplication of assessments; or Bromley, which is making excellent progress in establishing an integrated 0 to 25 service; or Manchester, which I visited earlier this week, which is working with employers to offer young people a wide range of work experience, helping many of their students to secure paid employment.
Reforms to the health service also offer great scope to improve support for young people with SEN and mental health problems - which affect far too many children in care, and around half of care leavers.
So from now on, health partners will be judged against the NHS mandate in these 2 areas. As members of the new health and wellbeing boards, you will play a key role in making sure that health commissioning decisions will deliver these critical commitments - and I encourage you to make the most of that role.
I hope that these new arrangements will help to reboot the relationship between health and children’s services.
But - and I know I don’t need to tell you this - changes in law are not necessarily enough to bring about change on the ground.
This new 0 to 25 system will be up and running from September 2014, and it will be up to all of you to make sure it runs smoothly. Experience from the pathfinders tells us it is a long, hard journey to get the culture change needed to make these reforms work on the ground.
You don’t have to wait for the legislation to begin making the change - in fact, you shouldn’t. Richmond isn’t a pathfinder but it has already begun to involve parents and carers in developing education, health and care plans, personalised budgets and a local offer.
It takes a long time to turn our systems around so that they truly operate with the needs of families at their heart.
Today I can announce that we are providing £9 million in this financial year to help you prepare for the reforms.
We’ve also set up pathfinder champions and we’re funding a number of VCS organisations, including the Council for Disabled Children, to help you too - but in the end only all of you in this room can make these reforms a reality.
So I urge all of you to start preparing now.
Adoption is another area where our attempts to simplify and streamline the system are achieving results.
And thanks to lots of hard work at a local level, the number of adoptions rose by 12% last year, compared to the one before - a great move in the right direction.
Once again, it’s the most innovative, and open-minded approaches which are working best. In the North West, for example, 10 local authorities have teamed up with Adoption Matters and Caritas to deliver, over 3 years, around 30 concurrent planning placements - allowing children to be fostered by carers approved for both fostering and adoption.
But although there’s been some progress, we can all agree that adopter recruitment is still a huge challenge.
As you know, we’ve introduced the First4Adoption phone and online service and the Adoption Passport to provide potential adopters with better information and support. The quicker, 2-stage adopter approvals process will also come into effect in July.
And it’s great to see signs of real commitment from the sector - like the moves by the Local Government Association to encourage the equalisation of the inter-agency fee.
But for the sake of every needy child waiting for a new home, and every prospective parent hoping to build a family, we still need to do more, together, to tackle this problem.
I know we agree on what the problems are - too many adoption agencies acting at too small a scale, too many processes (such as the habit of looking at in-house adopters first) getting in the way of finding the best match for a child quickly.
And I appreciate the progress that you’ve all made so far.
But the number of children waiting for adoption is still far too high; we absolutely cannot allow it to rise any higher.
So I want us to work together on the solutions - removing those disincentives, achieving system-wide, sustainable improvement, and using your expertise and experience to get these changes right on the ground.
And if that doesn’t improve the situation swiftly enough, I’m ready to take whatever steps are necessary to speed recruitment up still further.
Reforms to fostering, residential care and care leavers
As I said earlier, it comes down to this. As corporate parents, we all share the responsibility to do the best we possibly can for children who often have no one else.
For some, that means adoption.
For others, fostering.
So we’re taking steps to reform the fostering system, cutting through red tape and supporting great intervention programmes based on rigorous evidence - like the KEEP programme, which helps foster carers to strengthen their parenting skills, reduces their stress levels and improves children’s behaviour; or the Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care programme, which has helped prevent the breakdown of placements and prompted dramatic improvements in child behaviour.
For some young people, residential care might be the best option. But as we all know, the residential care system has serious weaknesses - weaknesses that left incredibly vulnerable young people prey to the worst kind of sexual predators.
We’ve just begun consulting on changing the regulations governing children’s homes and strengthening inspections by Ofsted to challenge poor practice wherever it occurs.
I’m a strong believer that transparency drives up quality and I hope that these reforms will shine a light on where care homes and local authorities can do better.
But because there are such serious dangers whenever a child disappears from home or care - as we’ve all seen in the recent, horrific court cases in Rochdale and Oxford - we’ve revised our statutory guidance on this subject and we need to work together to make sure that every local authority has robust, reliable systems to keep their children safe.
We also want to give you and your colleagues more authority to ensure that every decision is made in the best interests of the child, not the system.
So we’re currently consulting on changes that will require DCSs to give the go-ahead for placements far away from a child’s home area, and to approve the decision for a young person to leave care before the age of 18.
You all have the expertise on the ground - and for every vulnerable child’s sake, we need to make the most of it.
I want to tap into your expertise and your enthusiasm and ask you to help shape the future of children’s services; really to push the boundaries of new ways of delivering.
To search for innovation in every corner of the service, just as you have done with ‘What is care for?’ And just as we are aiming to do with our SEN and adoption reforms.
We start with a basic question - would this be good enough for our own children? When would we expect them to stand on their own two feet; how would we keep them safe; what would ‘the best’ look like if this was our child?
I’d like to thank all of you again for your hard work and commitment to answering those questions. As I said at the start, all our reforms, all our changes, are designed to allow each of us in this room to be a better corporate parent.
And I’d also like to challenge you to keep working with me towards greater innovation.
I know our plans are ambitious - to get services working together, to find new models of delivery, to blow the dust off old bureaucratic processes which choke the system - but this is a great opportunity for you, individually and collectively, to help shape the future of public services.
Together, we can make a real difference to the lives of the most vulnerable children. It’s a sense of responsibility I inherited at an early age, and I am delighted to be here, today, sharing it with you.