Thanks, David (Councillor Simmonds, Chair of the LGA Children and Young People Board) for the warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be with you again.
When I spoke at this conference last year in Eastbourne, I was just 3 weeks into my role as Children and Families Minister.
I’m pleased to say that, thanks to the hard work and dedication of many of you here today, we’ve since made some real progress on many of the issues I spoke about then, with the Children and Families Bill currently going through the Lords and as other reforms begin to bear fruit.
I said that we were determined to radically reform adoption and find more children loving homes for good.
The latest figures show that adoptions have climbed to their highest level since records began, with a 15% increase between 2011 to 2012 and 2012 to 2013. There’s much more to do, but this is hugely encouraging.
I said that we wanted to cut the red tape that stops foster carers getting on with everyday parenting.
Changes came into force this July significantly strengthening our expectation that day-to-day decision-making will be left to foster carers.
I said that we would strive to improve the education of children in care.
We recently announced that we’re more than doubling funding to support the education of children in care through the pupil premium plus and that 10,000 more children will benefit, not after 6 months but from day one.
I said that we would do more to protect vulnerable young people who were being placed miles from home, at risk of sexual exploitation, in poor quality children’s homes.
We recently published the fullest information possible about the location, ownership and quality of children’s homes in England - information that, absurdly, had been unavailable until now. Important changes are also in the pipeline to revise the regulations governing children’s homes and strengthen Ofsted inspections and we’re working to further understand and improve this market - as I know, is the LGA.
And I said that we would do more to support and challenge professionals responsible for children in need.
We’ve just appointed Isabelle Trowler as the first Chief Social Worker for Children and Families and are supporting fast-track graduate training programmes like Step up to Social Work and Frontline to really raise the status and quality of the profession.
So across all areas affecting disadvantaged children, we’re driving major reforms to transform life chances.
As you know, this has been my abiding passion from childhood through to my professional life in the care system. It’s what inspired me to go into politics. And it’s what continues to inspire me in government to ensure we put the needs of these hugely vulnerable children first.
I know it’s a passion that all of you here very much share. That’s why I’m delighted to be working alongside you.
And there’s, undoubtedly, some excellent work happening in local authorities - for which I’m extremely grateful and for which you deserve great credit, especially at a time when finances are so tight.
Case for innovation
But as we can see from the depressing prospects of children in care and from instances of appalling neglect and abuse visited on children - as witnessed in the recent terrible cases of Daniel Pelka, Hamzah Khan and Keanu Williams - we must do better by children so badly in need of our protection and support.
Ofsted’s report on children’s social care laid bare, this week, the scale of the challenge we face. But while it’s Ofsted’s job to shine a light on poor performance - and they have done that - it’s my job to do more than that - to challenge poor performance and intervene, as we have in a number of places like Doncaster.
But I also want to champion good performance, to drive innovation, not just where services are failing, but just as importantly, where they’re succeeding.
To do this, I believe we need to fundamentally rethink our approach - something a number of you here today have already argued, and compellingly so.
I’ve been really heartened by this push towards greater ambition and challenge - as evident in the ADCS’s ‘What is care for?’ report. And in the LGA’s report on the ‘Strategic commissioning of children’s homes’ and in its call for public services to be ‘rewired’ so that they fit in with families’ needs and not the other way around.
Heartened by the focus, in these reports, on outcomes - as seen in the LGA’s call for a “common national outcomes framework for children’s residential care”.
And heartened by their questioning of convention and openness to new ideas as they call for better models of delivery.
‘What is Care for?’, for example, proposes a more fluid boundary between care and community services and new, more flexible models of care, particularly for troubled adolescents.
The LGA’s report on better commissioning takes a similar approach; arguing for more work on hybrid models of care such as ‘foster care plus respite’ and ‘step down’ services.
In both cases, there’s a recognition that support should be flexed to suit the child’s needs rather than what suits systems set in stone. It’s a familiar theme and one that also runs through our reforms to special educational needs.
I want to see much more of this.
I want to support and liberate you to improve faster, get better value for money, do the job you came into the profession to do.
But to do this, I need you to demonstrate to me what you have to offer. And looking at the sparks of innovation in children’s services, I believe there are real reasons to be hopeful.
Examples of innovation
We’re seeing, for example, new, more effective approaches in social work.
Staffordshire, for example, has given a staff-owned mutual responsibility for children in care and care leavers, resulting in better decision-making and greater stability for the children in question and reduced staff turnover.
The council is now looking to build on this success and consider spinning out 2 other mutuals to replace its traditional children service structures and to provide a ‘cradle to grave’ disability service that brings together health and social care.
An innovative partnership between Kent and the children’s charity Coram has also boosted adoption rates by an astonishing 110%, doubling the number of children adopted within a year - all the more remarkable considering that it was achieved in the face of a 150% increase in the number of placement orders.
They recently held their first adoption activity day. Nearly a quarter of the children who attended, who might otherwise have been overlooked on paper, found potential new parents. Illustrating just what can be achieved with a bit of fresh thinking.
Imaginative partnership working is also bringing real benefits to care proceedings in London where Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster are together testing a new, more streamlined approach.
The tri-borough project has driven down the average length of care cases in the family courts by 45% - with cases down from an average 49 weeks to 27 weeks. Signalling, along with other innovative projects, that the 26-week time limit that we’re introducing for care proceedings, through the [Children and Families] Bill, is eminently achievable.
And there were other, wider benefits. Social workers who were more confident about making professional judgements because they were clearer about the court’s expectations. And now other areas have built on the tri-borough’s success, particularly across the South West.
But as well as innovating to drive success, other authorities are innovating to address failure.
Doncaster is working with us to develop an independent body to deliver better children’s services.
Sandwell is bringing in third party partners.
Elsewhere, high performing local authorities are providing challenge and support to weaker neighbours, as in the case of Hampshire, which is delivering services in the Isle of Wight, and Richmond, which is merging operations with Kingston. Halton, too, has used its leadership and expertise to help Cheshire West and Chester out of intervention.
Special educational needs
We need to break the silos that separate local authority from local authority, department from department, team from team.
This is the challenge at the heart of our SEN reforms.
As you know, we’re overhauling the system so that it’s much easier for children with SEN and their families to get the help they need right the way from birth to 25.
Getting different services to work together - across education, health and care and through children’s and adult services - is absolutely fundamental to these reforms, as is placing the child, young person and their family at the heart of everything they do. It’s a central requirement in the bill.
And we’re currently consulting on a new 0 to 25 SEN Code of Practice; guidance that makes clear what will be expected of local authorities and other agencies. This is statutory and cannot be ignored, so it’s important we get this right. So please do make your views known.
And please do get ready for these changes. The new system will begin next September and pathfinders report that it takes a least a year to prepare, not least for the cultural change to take hold.
As we all know, changes in guidance and the law can only do so much. Changing deeply-ingrained attitudes and working practices demands that we show flair and imagination in delivering these measures.
This is what pathfinders across the country are doing as they trial the reforms with over 1,500 families across 31 local authorities.
In Greenwich, families are setting up password-protected websites personalised with music, short films and written reports about the child to bring their education, health and care plans to life. The professionals working with them are then given secure access to the sites and encouraged to regularly post video clips and other information.
In Gateshead, pupils at the Cedars Academy Special School worked with an animation company to create a DVD called ‘Thanks for Listening’ to tell parents, carers and professionals about their views and aspirations.
And in West Sussex and Hartlepool, families are using personal budgets to improve the continuity of care between home and school and in, one case, to set up a work placement at a local charity for a young person with autism that will count towards an accredited course.
All fantastic examples of the opportunity there is here to do things differently and give families who have, so often, faced endless battles, a much better deal.
Examples that I hope inspire you to grasp the nettle in your own areas.
And you don’t have to wait for legislation. You can start innovating and introducing the changes now. Wolverhampton isn’t a pathfinder, but it’s already begun involving families in developing integrated assessments and education, health and care plans and a draft local offer.
But not all new ideas need to be about turning around great tankers of systems or grappling with gargantuan structures. Great things can grow from the small and nimble - and be no less powerful for that.
Something that’s particularly true of social media, where there a number of initiatives underway to develop apps to make it easier for front-line professionals to share information and access guidance. I look forward to seeing how these evolve and what the implications are for practice.
Innovation and efficiency
With the financial pressures we all face, this is just the sort of smart, agile thinking that we need to celebrate and share. So that instead of letting cost pressures blunt our ambitions, we need to dig deep creatively to make the money we do have work harder than ever for those who most need it.
My department is already working with the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as local authority groups, to look at ways to make the delivery of children’s services both more efficient and more effective.
The reforms to special educational needs, for example, offer the prospect of significant cost savings; in the short term by reducing the need for repeat assessments when a young person moves from school to college and in the longer term - according to the National Audit Office - by reducing lifetime support costs by up to as much as £1 million.
Understanding the barriers to innovation
But we should recognise that what works in one place, won’t necessarily work in another.
And as we know, making changes and trying something new, is rarely easy.
So I want to understand how we can make this easier for you. To really get to the bottom of what barriers you face and how we can help remove them.
I’ve heard DCSs say, for example, that a culture of risk aversion has taken hold, with people operating in silos that no external expertise is allowed to penetrate, always looking over their shoulder and trying to avoid getting into trouble.
This is something that I know will strike a chord with many of you frustrated by systems and structures that conspire to thwart innovation and the push for excellence. And that instead focus their energies on following processes and minimising risk.
And it’s something that the Munro review found too, of course - a box-ticking culture that had robbed professionals of the scope to exercise their judgement and authority. We’ve sought to address that.
And it’s something that I need you to also address more widely - from the top to the bottom of children’s services. To confront head on any systems and structures that are getting in the way of innovation and better outcomes.
I want you to be in the driving seat when it comes to shaping the future of children’s services, so that you’re telling me what they will look like in 5 years’ time and not the other way around.
It’s with this in mind that I’m delighted to announce today that we’re launching a new children’s services innovation programme.
The programme will act as a catalyst for developing more effective ways of supporting vulnerable children.
Over the coming months, we’ll be looking to talk to you, to front line staff, experts in the field and many others to find the most promising ideas for new and better interventions and ways of structuring and managing services.
I want all your most ingenious and dynamic ventures. Whether in social work practice or social pedadogy or be it in better approaches to supporting returns home or alternatives to residential care for adolescents.
From next year, we’ll develop, test and share those with the most potential.
I want ideas to come from the ground up, from those closest to the evidence and experience of what works. I want to hear from all sectors; public, private, voluntary and charitable. And in doing so, I want us to really grasp what helps and what hinders such enterprise.
Ask yourself the question and then tell me: what stops me from doing things differently and better?
In encouraging innovation in public services, governments have previously tried to pin down precisely what new ideas they want to see and on what terms they’ll consider them. I don’t want to do that. I want the invitation to be open and the ambition limitless. Nothing is off the table.
If you need help - in whatever form - to get your idea of the ground and are facing regulatory, financial or other barriers, I want to hear about it.
In all of this, I’m pleased to say that the Secretary of State and I have asked Clive Cowdery to champion the innovation programme. Clive is a great innovator, successful entrepreneur and also founder of the Resolution Foundation. I very much look forward to working with him to identify the sharpest, most inspirational thinking in the field.
Of course, not every venture will fly. But I’m excited and hopeful about the debate the programme promises to stimulate and the way in which it will encourage us to really push the boundaries to do better.
Because that’s what the programme and what all our reforms are about - not innovation for the sake of it, but the need to do much better for the sake of children who often have no one else to turn to; the children I’ve been fighting for since I was a child myself.
Many sectors have shown that they can innovate and improve services - we’ve seen entrepreneurialism in education, health and in local authorities too, which are sharing, merging and adapting a range of services. Why should services for children be excluded?
We need a fundamental change in approach - or rather, approaches - if we’re to really raise our game.
So I urge you to be bold and come forward with your most adventurous ideas. To work with us to do whatever it takes to give our most vulnerable children the best possible start in life - something I know we all want to see.
Innovation programme: your ideas
If you have an idea that could transform the lives of vulnerable children contact us at CS.firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us what your idea is trying to address, how it would work, and why you think it is likely to succeed.