Thanks, Isabelle (Trowler), and a very warm welcome to you all.
And it’s great to see so many of you here and from so many different walks of life - from councils, charities, schools, the health service and youth justice - reflecting, I’m sure, the profound commitment we all have, right across society, to securing a brighter future for our most vulnerable children.
Now, like you, I’m here for one reason and for one reason only: to see how we can better serve these children’s needs and give them the love, support and opportunities we want for our own children.
As many of you know, I grew up with around 90 foster children - two of whom we adopted - and then went on to spend a decade as a family lawyer in the care system.
So I know, first-hand, how many of you are prepared to go the extra mile, often in the most desperate circumstances, to help children who’ve known so much hurt and heartbreak. In that endeavour, I can’t tell you how thankful I am for everything you do.
And, indeed, there’s already some really excellent work underway that’s turning around the most troubled lives. But as we know, this remains too patchy, with the prospects of children in care still lagging well behind their peers.
And like you, I want to see excellence spread far and wide to truly lift their life chances. To see faster improvements, better value for money, bigger, more sustained gains. A relentless determination to do whatever it takes to make us all proud in being able to deliver consistently outstanding care for all children, whatever their circumstances.
Which means doing things differently. Looking afresh at the issues. Being open to new ideas. Removing the blocks holding us back.
Inspiring, supporting and challenging each other to break new ground and do better - and not just when things are going wrong, as is too often the case, but when they’re going right.
And it’s important to state from the outset that this is far from being just a drive from government.
Building on the Munro report, I know that many of you - in councils, charities and other organisations - have also come to the conclusion that we must think differently if we want to raise our game.
Which is why we’re looking to extend the freedom that local authorities have to delegate social care functions to mutuals, community interest companies and other not-for-profit organisations, or indeed to other local authorities.
In the past, you only tended to hear from us when we were intervening when there was failure. This is something completely different.
It’s about giving you the permission to decide how to deliver services so that they’re the best they can be for our most needy children - with the same safeguards and accountabilities still in place.
It’s about spurring innovation from the bottom up to make adequate services good, and good services outstanding; indeed, outstanding services even better - rather than just imposing innovation from the top down when there’s failure.
But above all, it’s about trusting social workers to innovate and raise standards, to do the job they came into the profession to do - as we trust other professionals in health and education.
I want all of you on the front line to be in the driving seat, showing us how you can do what you do even better when we unshackle you to redesign services that unashamedly put children’s needs first.
How - and even if - you use these freedoms is entirely in your hands. You’re the innovators here.
And I’m in no doubt that there’s a really fantastic opportunity here to increase the capacity of the system and the diversity and quality of services available. So I urge you to seize the potential the innovation programme offers.
As you’ll have heard me say before, this programme aims to help develop and spread new, more effective ways of supporting vulnerable children. There’s £30 million available this year and much more to follow next year, if the ideas are there to merit it.
We want people from every area - local authorities, schools, businesses, not-for-profit bodies - to come forward with their boldest, most ambitious ideas. We’ll help develop, test, implement and expand the most promising schemes; providing whatever tailored support is needed. And we’ll help build the evidence base, so that we can all learn from what works and what doesn’t.
We’ve decided to focus particularly on two areas: rethinking support for adolescents in or on the edge of care, and rethinking how children’s social work operates, knowing that some of you here have some interesting ideas about how we can go about doing just this.
Staffordshire, for example, - which has been at the forefront of calls for greater freedoms - wants to deliver its children’s services through a third-party organisation like a mutual or a social enterprise. They’re confident this approach will allow them to unleash their staff’s creative instincts, to focus more on outcomes and give young people and their families a bigger say in shaping services.
And I’ve seen for myself - just two months ago - how the Evolve YP social work practice in Staffordshire has used this approach to reap considerable improvements in social work delivery, recognised by their recent good Ofsted judgment. So there are real reasons to be optimistic about their plans.
But proposals don’t have to involve delivering services outside the local authority. In fact, we expect that many of the projects we fund will be about transforming things in house.
The Triborough local authorities in London, for instance, want to completely redesign their entire children’s social care system 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. Part of these changes involve using detailed modelling and tracking to identify and support children at greatest risk of coming into care as adolescents.
And I’m delighted to announce today that this is the first major project that we’ve decided to support. We’re putting in £4 million of funding from the programme in recognition of Triborough’s truly impressive ambition and the opportunity it offers to test a new way of doing things and blaze a trail for others.
As one manager there commented last week, “We’re simply thrilled. It’s the first time ever that government has given us money and really allowed us to think for ourselves. The Innovation Programme is a brilliant thing.”
And I hope Triborough’s success inspires you all to come forward with other ingenious and enterprising schemes. I hope the hall today is already buzzing with these sorts of ideas - and if not, it will be by the end of the day! Because today’s event is all about inspiring and exploring these ideas, forging alliances and giving us compelling reasons to work with you and fund your plans.
And there’s no room for reticence, because we’ve already been working with a number of innovators to develop their ideas into full proposals and are now launching guidance to help others to come forward.
So don’t miss out, or get left behind.
As for bids, they’re being assessed 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 will be supported and challenged by a team of coaches and specialists to run with the idea, make sure it’s ambitious and genuinely pushing the boundaries.
And then, if they clear this hurdle, proposals will be considered by our investment board, which includes Isabelle Trowler, the Chief Social Worker, Alan Wood from ADCS, and Clive Cowdery from the Resolution Foundation and a tireless champion for the programme.
I should add that we’ve specifically designed the programme in a way that keeps the process as simple and straightforward as possible, in an attempt to avoid a convoluted procurement exercise that can slow down and frustrate many of those wanting to get involved and get on with it.
I also want to say how immensely grateful I am for the investment board’s input, as I am to Councillor David Simmonds from the LGA and Debbie Jones from Ofsted for engaging with the programme and for agreeing to be guests on our panel later this morning.
At this final stage, the board will be looking for ideas that are genuinely transformative - for young people’s life chances and the way the system, as a whole, responds to their needs.
So please don’t hold back. Think big. Really go for it. Don’t underestimate our appetite to support daring leaps or something that demands flexibility in how regulations or statutory guidance is applied. As I said earlier, we all need to think differently, including central government.
This is not about business as usual - but I know that none of us would be here today if we were satisfied with the status quo.
The fact there’s so much passion and expertise in this room and beyond, that we must do much more to harness, so that we leave no stone unturned to give our neediest children the best possible start in life.
So I hope you’ll find the event useful as well as acting as a catalyst for your own ideas, to help them formulate and flourish. And in doing so, ask yourself, when did a government minister last come to me and tell me that the ball really is in my court and back it with millions of pounds of funding? As the Triborough has already shown, this opportunity is there to be seized. And I’m confident that together we can grab it both hands. Thank you.