Social services are the backstop of our society - offering early help to families in need, and intervening where things go wrong. Yet thankfully, children’s social care is not a service that most children and families ever have to draw on.
For most people, the support network provided by family, friends, communities, schools and health services will be enough to enable them to give their children a safe, stable and nurturing home. However, there is a smaller group of children - our most vulnerable - who need much more intensive help in order to have the same stable foundations that others take for granted.
These children face challenges which most of us can only imagine. They may have disabilities, or have faced abuse and neglect. They may have been let down time and again by the people who are supposed to love and protect them. They may be being exploited by perpetrators preying on their vulnerability.
The horrors of the serious cases we all know about - Daniel Pelka, Hamzah Khan, Ellie Butler, the children exploited so terribly in Rotherham - demonstrate just how catastrophic and heart-breaking the consequences can be when we fail to protect our children.
It is these cases that drive me, as Education Secretary, to know that we cannot rest as a government until we give all children a childhood to cherish. I will never forget how I felt when I read about the true extent of the horrors that occurred in Rotherham.
We must support struggling parents to provide the best possible care for their children. And where a birth parent cannot provide the stable, happy home their child deserves, we must step in. The costs are simply too great if we do not - it can be literally a matter of life and death.
The best social workers and many fantastic foster carers change children’s lives immeasurably for the better. But the quality of the help and support children get is far too variable. Only one quarter of local authorities that have been reviewed by the new Ofsted inspection regime are classed as ‘good’ or better - which is in no way good enough. I am determined to raise standards so that all vulnerable children get the best quality care and support - there can be no compromise.
That’s why today I am proud to be launching my plan for the widest reaching reforms to children’s social care and social work in a generation. This strategy will deliver a system staffed and led by the best trained professionals; dynamic and free to innovate in the interests of children; with less bureaucracy; new checks and balances designed to hold the system to account in the right ways; and new ways to intervene more quickly where services consistently fail our most vulnerable children.
First, we will make sure we have the best social work leaders, who can make sure all frontline staff have the right knowledge and skills for the challenges this rewarding job entails. This includes radical reforms to raise the quality and status of the profession - including investment in graduate schemes, and a new social work training programme that will look at the development of those making the transition from frontline practice into practice supervision.
Second, this vision will put innovation at its heart. Our Children and Social Work Bill, which has recently been introduced in Parliament, will create a new ‘power to innovate’, which will be used to give leading local authorities the freedom to test out innovative new ways of working. This builds on the £200 million we are making available to drive innovation and spread excellence in children’s services. The very best councils have so much to share - and we must learn from their approach.
Third, we must take swift action where services are letting children down. That’s why today I’m announcing that Norfolk children’s services will begin working with Barnardo’s to establish a joint looked-after children service - the first in the country. And our work to set up voluntary trusts in Sunderland and Birmingham continues.
And we must reform how we protect children - which is why our Children and Social Work Bill introduces landmark measures to improve how agencies share information, and why we will set up a national learning panel so we learn as a country from horrific cases of child abuse.
But if we want to give these children the best life chances, our efforts must not stop once they leave care. We know that last year 39% of care leavers were NEET, compared to around 15% of 19- to 21-year-olds in the general population, and 25% of those who were homeless had been in care at some point.
Last year, the Prime Minister and I asked the former head of Barnardo’s, Sir Martin Narey, to lead a review of children’s homes in England. This important report makes clear that young people leaving residential care need more support. I wholeheartedly agree.
So today I am announcing that we will pilot a radical new scheme - staying close - allowing young people leaving children’s homes to live nearby and retain links with those people who have cared for them. That means care leavers will no longer have to face life’s milestones alone - be it applying for university, getting a job or finding their first home.
Our children’s social care system faces significant challenges but by building on its strengths we can deliver a system that is well and truly up to the task of caring for the most vulnerable children in our society in a way that any good parent would.
I’m doing it because, just as only ‘excellent’ is good enough for our own children, in a one-nation Britain we should expect it for the most vulnerable children in our society too. The sad reality is that these children don’t always have a parent to speak out for them or look after their best interests. They deserve to know that we are on their side.