Thanks Alan [Wood, President of ADCS and Director of Children’s Services at Hackney Council]. It’s a pleasure to be back here with you again this year in this magnificent Edwardian baroque Mancunian venue.
Congratulations, once again Alan, on your appointment. And a big thanks for the work you’ve done so far to help us on issues like Doncaster and Birmingham.
It’s recognition also, I think of how much you bring to the role, not least, of course, dare I say, in giving more airtime to your experience of transforming education and children’s services in Hackney. So I’m very much looking forward to continuing to work with you and the ADCS in the coming months. And I echo what has been said: that ADCS is an important and significant organisation whose support and challenge I’ve greatly valued, and will continue to do so.
And as well as drawing on your own strengths and passion, Alan, I know that you’ll want to build on Andrew Webb’s [previous President of ADCS] excellent work over the past year. And I want to say how much personally I’ve appreciated the dedication and leadership Andrew has shown, particularly on adoption - something particularly close to my heart - and family justice.
And also in his work with my department and Cafcass in developing a social work evidence template, as endorsed by the Family Justice Board. I think this is going to be a really important tool in our continued drive to reduce delays and ensure that our family courts work better for vulnerable children. It’s good to see the sector taking the lead on this.
So I wish Andrew the very best as he continues his important work in Stockport and beyond. Also I want to add thanks to CYPNow who I think have provided fair, open reporting and critique of our work in central and local government with children and families.
Now, I know that many of you’ll be expecting me to focus on children’s services and social work. And it’s true that there’ve been some important improvements, which are often overlooked, as well as developments; most notably, the recent move to give local authorities the freedom to delegate social care functions to mutual, community interest companies and other not-for-profit organisations.
It’s no secret that there were some concerns that these freedoms could open the door to profiteering by the private sector. We listened to those views and I believe we’ve struck a good balance - between giving you the same freedom as we give other professionals in health and education, to innovate and raise standards, whilst ensuring that the same safeguards and accountabilities apply.
Of course, how - and even if - councils use these freedoms is entirely in their hands. But I’m in no doubt that there’s a fantastic opportunity here to increase the capacity of the system, as well as the diversity and quality of services - something I know your president has also recognised and supported.
So, wherever possible, I urge you to grab it with both hands and make it work for you in your pursuit of excellence in services for children.
But innovation doesn’t have to involve delivering services outside the local authority. As Alan said, the new children’s social care innovation programme is looking to support a variety of approaches.
Just earlier this week you will be aware that I announced the first full award from the programme of £4 million to the London triborough to enable them to completely redesign how they deliver children’s social care from within and from top to bottom, so that professionals can spend more time with children and families and so practice is rooted in greater expertise and evidence. 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”.
So I encourage you all to come forward with ideas that break new ground and help us do better. That’s what in reality innovation means, and it’s an opportunity for the sector, not a threat. So it’s pleasing that other local authorities are working with us on designing a specialist social work practice specialising in FGM and on setting up third party organisations like mutuals to deliver more effective services.
The mutual model has proven successful right across the range of public services; raising productivity and cutting costs whilst fostering innovation and improving quality for service users. And it’s a model that has the potential to play a central role in this sector too.
But these freedoms and opportunities for innovation are only a part of our push to find new and better ways to serve our most vulnerable children. They also include our reforms to special educational needs (SEN), shaped with the ADCS. And with their introduction fast approaching, that’s what I want to concentrate on today.
These reforms represent big changes for families who only ask for what we all expect for our own children - support to help them develop and thrive.
Support that fits in with their needs and not the other way around.
Support that’s as ambitious for their child as we are for other children.
A system that sees the child and not the label.
And that’s exactly what our reforms are all about.
For too long, families who face big enough challenges already have also found themselves facing - as one mother put it - “an unending battle” with a system that’s supposed to be on their side.
Like you, I want to change that experience for families.
To take us from a system that, despite best efforts, has simply become too complex, fractured and adversarial to one that’s clearer, more joined up and much more focused on children achieving their best.
Which means raising our ambitions much higher - and putting young people and their parents firmly in the driving seat.
The changes we’re making do just that - whether through the new Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans; through the local offer outlining what support is available; or through the requirement for services to co-operate more closely, with a new duty on health to work with local authorities to ensure that any health support that’s agreed in an EHC plan is delivered - even if that means commissioning it specifically.
It’s a radical overhaul that breaks down artificial barriers, and that champions children with SEN as never before from birth right through to adulthood.
Yes, these are big changes for families. And big changes for all of us who support them - particularly for those of you on the ground.
And I do appreciate that it’s easy to make promises from on high when those on frontline are the ones who have to deliver. Which is why I’m determined to do all I can to help you make the new system a success.
As you know, the changes have now been enshrined in the Children and Families Act and the underpinning Code of Practice is currently going through its final stages in Parliament. But this is very much the beginning, not the end of the work that needs to be done.
We all know that the real graft, the effort that ultimately turns lives around, doesn’t happen in Parliament, but in county offices, classrooms, GP surgeries, nurseries, colleges, playgrounds, not to mention family homes.
Because the truth is, that if it’s to have a real impact, a change in law must go hand in hand with a change in culture - a long-term change that gives much greater priority to children and young people with SEN. That sees us ‘working with’, not ‘doing to’.
These aren’t my words. They’re the words of the local authorities I met last week, many of whom are already driving some really excellent practice - and not just in pathfinder areas, but in other councils too.
They told me that the new arrangements are freeing them to work with parents as they’ve always wanted to - parents who, having been through the EHC assessment and planning process, are also reporting really positive experiences that focus on their children’s strengths rather than their limits.
So we can see that councils can - and are - making these reforms work and, as a consequence, making a tangible difference. And I hope you’ll be encouraged and energised , even inspired by their example as you get ready for roll-out in little over a month’s time.
To that end, I know from my own conversations and visits in recent weeks that many of you have been working hard and committing extra, valuable resources in order to prepare, and I want to say how grateful I am for all your efforts so far.
And the good news is that 95% of councils have told us they’re on track for September and can manage the changes. For authorities who are further behind the curve, I’ve made it my business personally to follow up on their progress. I hope that’s a sign of how important the government considers these reforms to be and our determination to see them improve things on the ground. Because we clearly all want families to be able to transfer smoothly to the new system and take full advantage of everything it has to offer.
And we’ve listened to you to ensure that this transfer happens at a manageable pace over the next 3-and-a-half years. So while we’re pressing the button in September, we’re not talking about an overnight switch.
And we expect that different councils of different sizes and starting points will take different approaches to delivery.
For some, these aren’t such big changes.
In Rochdale, for example, health and social care are already well integrated, and joint commissioning is also well developed in Kent and Wigan.
And in West Sussex and Hartlepool, we can see that personal budgets are doing their bit to really improve the continuity of care between home and school.
But be that as it may, we know that introducing these changes is a challenge - which is why we’re providing support throughout.
It’s why I recently announced an extra £45.2 million of funding in 2014 to 2015 and indicative funding of £31.7 million in 2015 to 2016 to help councils with implementation.
That’s on top of the £70 million SEN Reform Grant that councils can use, with no ring fencing, to work with health and others to deliver these changes.
And I’m also working closely with Dr Dan Poulter, my ministerial colleague at the Department of Health, to ensure that information and advice on implementation is joined-up across health and social care.
On top of that, we’ve also extended the pathfinder champion programme until March 2015, so that local areas can easily draw on lessons from those testing the reforms across 31 local authorities.
And as well as listening to you, we’ve also been listening to parents and young people and taking on board their advice about how we can make the system better.
Families told us that they wanted to be more involved in shaping the support they receive. And we can see that the reforms are helping them do just that.
In Greenwich, families are using short films, written reports and even music about each child to bring their EHC plans to life on secure websites. Parents give professionals working with them access to these personalised sites - sites which also allow professionals to regularly post updates and other useful information. One of the special schools in the area has taken this a step further, and incorporated this imaginative approach into their curriculum.
A terrific example of the kind of innovation and excellence that these reforms are unleashing - and it’s not just restricted to areas testing the reforms.
Wolverhampton isn’t a pathfinder, but has, nevertheless, involved young people and their parents, early on, and got them working in partnership with different agencies to produce a draft local offer and trial an integrated assessment approach. The result? EHC plans being delivered more quickly and families reporting better experiences. As one parent put it, “The process was smooth and easy and felt very personal to us as a family”. That’s exactly what I want every parent to be able to say.
In Cheadle, the Seashell Trust is bringing professionals from different agencies together in one place to carry out assessments - which is better for them and better for the families in their care. I was able to visit the Trust recently and was really impressed by what I saw.
And we can see personal budgets stimulating innovation in the SE7 area as they shift the focus from the mechanics of provision to the potential of each young person. One parent told us that having a personal budget “…has made us think differently about how we might approach his longer-term care and support needs and the role we could play in this, to the extent that we are looking into setting up a parent-led residential care service for him and other young adults as a long-term venture”.
Now, we often talk about empowering families and putting them at the centre of services. I think this is what it looks like.
But there’s, of course, more to do.
Families have consistently told us - and all of you - over the years how hard they’ve found it to get information, to deal with different agencies, to find their way through the system.
That’s why we’re putting £30 million into recruiting and training independent supporters to help families in the transition to the new system, which are intended to also help you.
And I’m optimistic that these supporters and the generally more collaborative thrust of the new system will not only help put children’s needs first, but improve relationships between parents and professionals - and reduce the conflict that’s all too prevalent in the current set-up.
Indeed, developing good links with parents and doing all you can to involve them, now and in the long term, is utterly vital to the cultural shift that’s needed to make these reforms a success; to helping families understand what the changes mean for them and to managing expectations.
Change, inevitably, can be a rather bumpy ride, so investing in these relationships now will pay dividends in the months and years to come.
So I urge you to make them a real priority. Contact all your families with an identified child with SEND and make sure they know what will be happening come September.
Equally, early years settings, schools and colleges also need to get young people and parents on board - especially when it comes to working with councils to develop the local offer and their own school offer.
And I’m also keen to see schools and local authorities joining up with health wherever possible so that support can be provided earlier.
In planning ahead, the Code - which is firmly based on best practice - is a good guide, particularly as regards to greater integration with health and education. As you know, this will kick in at all levels.
I also want to be clear that we don’t expect you to have everything done and dusted on day one. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
There are, of course, certain things that you must have in place for September - information and advice, the local offer and the capacity to assess those wanting a new EHC plan. Others, like joint commissioning and the offer for young offenders, will take longer to develop.
Because, as I said before, these are undoubtedly changes on a large scale that come with big challenges, but also - we shouldn’t forget - a big opportunity - the biggest for a generation to change the lives of some of our most disadvantaged children.
And with over 1.5 million children and young people relying on our SEN provision in just our schools, I accept that it won’t all be plain sailing. But, be in no doubt, we are behind you all the way; offering support from our expert advisers or from Mott McDonald, putting money behind the new system, monitoring closely how it works. So I urge you to seize this chance to really raise our game for these young people.
To go as far and fast as you can to help them tap into their unique talents.
To support them to aspire and achieve at school, at work and as happy, fulfilled adults.
To do the job you came into the profession to do - the very best for those in your care.
This is what our drive for innovation in this and other areas is all about. Not change for its own sake. Not ideology. All I’m interested in, and what drives me, is what works to provide better support and better prospects for vulnerable children.
And no-one has a keener understanding of what this means than the young people themselves and their parents. Something that’s been driven home for me, time and time again, not only on visits to schools and colleges, but also through the invaluable advice that I receive from EPIC, a group of very bright, articulate young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
They remind me what really matters and why we’re all doing this - and what an incredible difference we can make to their lives when we get it right. So do take every opportunity to reach out to families as you implement these changes - you won’t regret it.
So can I thank you, once again, for the hard work and commitment that all of you here and beyond have put in so far. The wider pressures you’re under are not lost on me either. I want you all to succeed. I believe we’re on track, and I’m confident that by continuing to work together, we can ensure that there are no limits to what children with SEN - indeed all children who need your support - can achieve.