One of my guiding principles as a politician is that Britain can only achieve its true potential when we level the playing field of opportunity for everyone. As you know only too well, children within the social care system are the ones furthest away from having that level playing field; locked out from opportunities that would really allow them to fulfil their potential. Making sure they get an excellent education is crucial, but before that they need a stable, loving and nurturing home life - the stability and security that will really set them up to succeed as adults.
So we’ve got to aim for a world-class children’s social care system that will ensure no child is left behind. This has been a consistent priority for the government since the landmark ‘Munro review of child protection’ in 2011, which told us that we had created a system where complying with unnecessary central prescription had created barriers to providing effective care. The government then began a long-term programme of work to take forward Munro’s recommendations; and earlier this year, we took that plan a step further by publishing ‘Putting children first’, setting out our vision to 2020.
Like my predecessors, I remain committed to this long-term, systemic programme of change. We’ve got the plan - now we need to stick to it, and see it through. I’d like to pay tribute to Edward Timpson - I know you are going to hear from him next - for all his work on this and his passion for driving forward reform.
Supporting the people who can make a difference
It is hard to think of a profession more important, more routinely life changing, than social work. Like teaching and medicine, social work deserves huge amounts of respect from us as a society and that’s why possibly the most important aspect of our changes to children’s social care is what we are doing to support the people, and leaders, on which our children’s social care systems are built.
Reviews of social work education have told us time and again that, all too often, the current system doesn’t give new social workers the skills they really need. The creation of teaching partnerships was in recognition of the fact that we needed a more joined-up approach between universities and employers. Early indications are that, in the 4 pilot areas, standards have risen, confidence is high, development is driven by employers, and curricula have been re-designed to match the needs of vulnerable children and families.
So teaching partnerships work.
And that’s why we are expanding them - so more graduates leave university with the ‘on the job’ skills they need. And today we are awarding funding to 11 new partnerships, investing £4.7 million in the programme over the next 2 years, and bringing the total number of partnerships to 15.
I know there has been much said about our proposals for a new social work regulator. We believe it’s a really important step towards raising the status of the profession and building public confidence in social workers. But I know some of you have raised concerns about how independent it would be and - while it was never our intention for ministers to take day-to-day decisions - we have listened to, and taken on board, your concerns. That’s why we have decided to redesign the regulator, placing it at arm’s length to government, with a clear set of responsibilities for which it will be accountable.
We fully intend to continue listening and we’re particularly keen to work with you on the roll-out of assessment and accreditation across the country. I firmly believe that this is a potentially transformational new approach, and the assessment that has been designed is a powerful tool to transform child and family social work, creating a clearly defined specialism and career structure for the first time.
I know many of you contributed to the design of the programme, which in the end makes sense because this is a tool for you. Thank you for all your contributions so far and we should carry on working in partnership on this. The next important step is to publish our consultation, which I will do shortly, and I hope you will engage with it fully.
Finally, as Ofsted have recently pointed out, one of the most important ingredients in setting ambitions and driving up standards is excellent leadership, so that we can inspire both the social workers in the system now and a new generation of the best educated and trained social workers we have ever seen in this country.
We want to support and nurture our most talented social workers to become the practice leaders of the future. I’m really pleased that today we are launching a new practice-based development programme for the next generation of practice leaders. I am writing to all directors and assistant directors of children’s services to encourage you to think about which of your senior social workers have the commitment, and potential, to succeed as practice leaders. And this programme will be at the heart of our continued focus on improving the quality of service children and families receive.
Dynamic social work practice
So people are at the centre of our strategy for transforming children’s social care. But I know as well as you do that getting this right is not just about finding good people and training them well. Great leaders also build the kind of creative and supportive environments in which excellent practitioners can really develop their skills and experience to reach their full potential.
All too often, leadership - national and local - has retreated into what feels like the safe territory of prescribing the way things should be done. In doing so, we create rigid ways of ‘doing it by the book’. But actually, if we want dynamic social work and a profession that is strong and adaptive, then we have to constantly test and evaluate new ways of working - so we can build the evidence base, learn from the very best practice and embed it as the norm.
I grew up in Rotherham. I know things didn’t go wrong there overnight. When I look back, the seeds had been there for a long time, but I think this makes the case for new arrangements for learning from those cases where things go seriously wrong. That’s why the Children and Social Work Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, will introduce a new panel for reviewing the most serious and complex cases. That panel will make sure we get to the bottom of what has gone wrong so that the system as a whole can learn from it.
But what we also need to do is make sure social workers have the freedom to innovate and come up with those new ways of working that have the potential to make a much bigger difference to children’s outcomes. That’s exactly what the Children’s Social Care Innovation programme is all about.
Yes, it’s crucial that we learn lessons when things go wrong, but we also need to learn lessons when things go right. So today, we are publishing some of the first evaluation reports which start the process of growing the evidence base on what really works in children’s social care. And these reports are an important step towards us achieving a new national learning infrastructure, with the new ‘What Works Centre’ as its hub.
I’m also really pleased to be able to announce expansions of 3 of the most successful Innovation programme projects, including £444,000 for Calderdale’s Positive Choices project, which works with high-risk young people; £3.7 million for the successful Firstline social work development programme; and an even bigger extension for Pause.
Pause supports women to break a destructive cycle of repeat pregnancies that result in children being removed from their care, causing deep trauma and huge costs to society as a whole. These are women who often have complex histories involving neglect and abuse but, by enabling them to focus on themselves and their needs when they don’t have children in their care, Pause helps them to take control of their lives. And it really works - early indications show positive results for all 150 women Pause is working with currently. That’s why we are extending its funding by £6.8 million over 4 years, so it can increase its reach from the 7 pilot areas to 9 more across the country. This should enable the project to reach 3,000 women over a 6-year period.
We want to really challenge the profession to be innovative and we believe that excellent practice leaders like you can, and will, rise to that challenge. Because actually we don’t think Parliament, the government or civil servants should prescribe and define what great social work looks like. You are the experts and we want you to define it for yourselves, but of course within a clear statutory framework. And that’s the thinking behind the new ‘power to innovate’.
I know it has been criticised by some, but I want to be clear about what the power actually means. It is not and never was about privatisation of child protection services. And we’re going to make that clear in the law and that’s why we have laid an amendment to the legislation, putting the question beyond any doubt.
I also want to be clear with you that the power to innovate is not about removing fundamental protections from vulnerable children. In fact it’s the opposite - it’s about how we put you in the best position to protect them properly.
So a country that works for everyone, with a level playing field of opportunity for everyone, means we need to make sure all children have the chance to make the most of their potential, no matter their starting point in life. That means my department has a lot of work to do - and I know so do you and your teams.
I hope what you’ll take away from today is that I’m committed to this - and to you. Excellent social work transforms the lives of the people who most need them transformed. When it’s done really well, when it’s dynamic, it opens up opportunity. Whilst there might be a deficit of opportunity for these children, there is certainly no deficit of talent. It’s those children I know that we all have in mind as we push ahead with these major changes.
It’s a responsibility for all of us. And I don’t want the relationship between you and the Department for Education to be one of ‘us and them’. It’s a shared responsibility. If we’re really going to get this right and make sure social work is consistently transformational, then let’s have all of us working together for these young people.
Social work is about helping people get on the right track, it’s about choices. But I recognise you make a choice too in choosing a career in such a difficult, challenging area, when there are so many other easier routes. I made a choice of a less easy route too, because I’m committed to making a difference for my community and my country.
Sometimes, in my role as a constituency MP, I come across children and families whose lives have been touched by the social care system. I understand the complex challenges, the inter-generational disadvantage that can prevent lives from being lived to the full. In my constituency work, I only touch the surface, see the edges, of the problems people face, but even this is enough to start to understand the skill, expertise and professionalism that must be required to really get to the heart of the matter, and help a family to grow, change and overcome their circumstances. This is what our social workers achieve every day.
I recognise how impossible it is to help respond to those challenges with rigid rules, as understandable as the caring motives are that put them in place. Lots of people have difficult starts. Mine was growing up in Rotherham in the 1980s. But however little money we had, there was my family that made all the difference. So, for the children today that don’t have that family network - I know your work is absolutely vital.