Thanks, Alison [O’Sullivan, ADCS President]. It’s a great pleasure and privilege to be joining you here again as Children and Families Minister.
And it’s fair to say that a lot has happened since last year, not least the small matter of a general election, but something hasn’t changed.
Many of you will know that I’ve lived and worked with children in care all my life and that, much to my wife’s chagrin, it’s what drove me into politics too. So I couldn’t be more thrilled to be returning to a job I love - and to be continuing to work on our shared mission to give vulnerable children a better start in life.
And that’s absolutely central too to the government’s commitment to delivering real social justice, to tackling disadvantage and ensuring that these children enjoy the same protection, support and opportunities that we all want for our own children.
And I know from my years of involvement with the ADCS that they and those it represents are just as passionate about achieving that goal as I am.
So I want to reiterate how much I continue to value your support and challenge - and in doing so, pay tribute to Alan Wood’s outstanding contribution over the past year and welcome Alison’s appointment. Her speech yesterday was forthright, constructive and forward thinking - a critical combination as we work together to improve services for children.
As I’ve said, this shared commitment to helping every child, regardless of background, be the best they can be is right at the top of the government’s agenda, with 2 bills currently going through Parliament - on adoption and childcare - not something any other department across Whitehall can claim.
They’re important because they build on major reforms, from the past 5 years, to improve child protection and support for children in care, and drive excellence and innovation throughout the system.
And it’s right to acknowledge that many of you here today - and beyond - have played an important role in helping strengthen and deliver on those reforms and ensuring that vulnerable children and families can really benefit.
That includes landmark reforms to special educational needs [SEN], something I spoke about at length here last year, and I’m pleased that they’ve been widely welcomed for transforming support for families and, crucially, for recalibrating their relationships with professionals.
Now, it’s, of course, still early days when it comes to implementation, and I know that many people across the country are working hard to get to grips with the fundamental change in culture these SEND reforms demand - real partnership working across health and children’s social care, and services designed around the children and their families.
Since the legislation was passed, we’ve continued to keep in close contact with local authorities as they put policy into practice and, having listened carefully to the feedback received from professionals and families alike, I’m today announcing 2 changes which will help you both with transfers from statements and learning difficulty assessments [LDAs] to the new education, health and care plans.
Firstly, it’s clear that this is a big job, involving around 230,000 people with statements, and it’s a job that needs to be done well, that has quality at its heart.
Simply rebadging statements and LDAs as education, health and care plans isn’t an option. We need to ensure that young people’s needs are properly identified and met.
So, I’ve asked our delivery support partner - a consortium led by Mott MacDonald and the Council for Disabled Children - to provide further advice and support to local areas in managing this transition. This will address the legal requirements but also draw on the most effective practical approaches to carrying out transfer reviews.
Secondly, I’ll be extending the maximum timescale for transferring individual statements from 16 to 20 weeks, matching the timescale for new assessments.
This isn’t and it mustn’t be about drift. Where it suits a family’s needs, I would still expect the transfer to happen more quickly. But where transfers are more complex, it makes more sense to take a little longer to get it right. Because, as I say, in our efforts to move to the new 0 to 25 SEN system, we can’t stint on quality, especially at the crucial assessment stage.
So I’m hopeful these changes will help, and we’ll continue to monitor closely how things are working. Our regular survey of local authorities is hugely helpful to us and we’re grateful that so many of you take the time to complete it. We anticipate being able to share the results of the latest surveys later this month.
In addition, I’ve asked Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission [CQC] to inspect how well local areas are doing in making sure these reforms are really delivering for children and young people. Now, I want this to be a constructive process that gives local areas the chance to learn about what works and that reassures families about the progress being made. To that end, Ofsted and the CQC will consult on their plans over the summer.
And, in addition to these once-in-a-generation changes to SEN, there have also been our fundamental reforms to the adoption system.
Reforms that have seen the numbers being adopted go up by an impressive 63% in the last 3 years, and the time children spend waiting to be adopted go down by an average of 4 months.
In 2013 to 2014, local authorities approved 25% more adopters than the year before, meaning that over 5,000 children in that year alone found loving homes for life. An achievement of which we should all be proud.
And I want to pay tribute too to the fantastic contribution from Martin Narey - who you heard from yesterday - and the members of the Adoption Leadership Board for helping push our reform agenda forward so successfully.
But challenges, of course, remain.
Many of you tell us that recent court judgements have knocked your confidence when it comes to pursuing adoption as an option for children. In fact, I would argue you have every reason to be more confident.
In November, we published and widely shared guidance on what recent judgements say to ensure they were not being misunderstood. And in December, in a new court judgement, ‘Re R’, the President of the Family Division made it absolutely clear that the law on adoption has not changed - where it is in the child’s best interests, adoption must be pursued.
And so I urge you all to ensure that this message has been heard loud and clear across your organisations.
I’m determined to continue to do everything I can to tear down the barriers to adoption - which is why we’re also creating regional adoption agencies [RAAs].
By working on a larger scale than at present and across authority boundaries, RAAs will help reduce delays that are still seeing almost 3,000 children waiting to be adopted despite there being enough approved adopters.
We want to work with local authorities, through the Adoption Leadership Board and regional adoption boards, to deliver RAAs, and have just announced £4.5 million of practical and financial support to help.
And, on top of this, there’s the extra £30 million, announced in Wednesday’s budget, to help councils cover the costs of the adoption inter-agency fee.
We know this fee can too often be a block, preventing matches with adopters approved by other local authorities or voluntary agencies, and causing delays for children who’ve been waiting too long.
But with the fee covered, councils will be free to consider all possible matches across the whole country and be encouraged to work more closely across agencies, paving the way for regional adoption agencies.
And I’ve been delighted by the positive way LAs and VAAs have responded to these proposals for RAAs. So if you haven’t been planning to already, I urge you to get involved and become part of the solution.
We’re also doing more to help adoptive families overcome challenges through the £19 million adoption support fund. Around 330 families have already benefited from the fund since May and received the therapeutic support they need.
Having grown up with 2 adopted brothers, I know just how vital this help can be. I’m receiving regular reports on who’s using and not using the fund and - whilst thanking those authorities who’ve applied - I’d urge others who haven’t done so to make the most of this resource and ensure that those who need it can.
So there are strong foundations on which we can build.
And as we go forward into the new Parliament and, yes, a new government, there are 3 pillars of work I want to concentrate on.
First, systems - with the Munro reforms taking hold, do we have the right levers in place to go further still and at greater pace?
Second, people - have we got the right people with the right knowledge and skills doing the right things?
And third, checks and balances - how do we make sure what we’re doing is working? Is local accountability effective? Do we have the data to show us the strengths and weaknesses in the system?
It’s with these things in mind - issues I know your president highlighted in her address yesterday - that I want to see us renew our collective efforts - to see us go further to unleash excellence and innovation throughout the system, so that we can not only better protect vulnerable children and support families, but set them up for happy and fulfilling lives.
Child Protection Taskforce
To that end, the Prime Minister recently announced the establishment of a new cross-government child protection taskforce. This will lead improvements in the way that children’s services, the police and other agencies work together in the interests of young people.
The taskforce will complement the Home Office’s work on child sexual exploitation - an issue that continues to test us like no other. It’s good to see the research published today by the Virtual Staff College on how other countries are tackling this horrendous abuse, making it clear that we’re far from alone in facing up to this. And that, while no nation has cracked this, it’s ever more evident that the quality of the workforce and frontline practice is absolutely key to really transforming lives.
This is something I appreciate not just from my ministerial experience, but also from seeing the incredible work that social workers do, under often the most extreme pressure, whilst growing up in a foster family and working in the care system as a family barrister.
Social work reform
Which is why reforms to social work will be my top priority during this Parliament.
The Education Secretary - who will chair the taskforce - will say more, shortly, about our plans to accelerate our social work reforms - what this means for the profession, for frontline practice and for governance.
Understandably, there is some concern about the closure of the College of Social Work and I want to commend all those who contributed to its work. We’re working closely with the college to ensure its legacy is preserved. Needless to say, we remain committed to a capable, confident profession that’s held in highest regard and our plans will reflect that statement of interest.
As well as continuing to expand Step Up and Frontline, development of our new national system of assessment and accreditation for those working in child and family social work is well underway.
We’ll be consulting over the summer on the knowledge and skills that practice supervisors and leaders need. Early feedback from those who’ve already seen these proposals suggests they’re being well received.
One principal social worker has described them as “very impressive statements which set out the ground clearly and should be welcomed by the sector”. Another said they will help “identify the leaders of the future”.
And we’re encouraged too by the positive way local authorities have responded to our recent requests for help in developing the accreditation system. Within just 2 weeks, over 10 councils have already agreed to become our partners in practice - organisations that have recognised the importance of getting this system right, so we can help get practice right every time for children and families.
It would be remiss not to recognise the role of Isabelle Trowler in leading these reforms so passionately and knowledgeably. And also to all those who have been working with us on this. Because one thing is absolutely clear to me - to be most effective, this drive to improve social work has to be led by all of you, on the ground, in partnership with the government; not just imposed from the top by me.
Social work teaching partnerships
To illustrate my point, when local authorities last year started asking me why they couldn’t set up partnerships with universities if they wanted to improve social work training. My reply was: “You can. How can I help?”
And so I’m delighted to announce today the first 4 social work teaching partnerships, jointly funded with the Department of Health, in greater Manchester, south-east London, south Yorkshire and a consortium led by Staffordshire. These partnerships give local authorities a much bigger role in leading social work initial training, but move beyond this to focus on the whole of a practice-focused career.
As such, these impressive partnerships have the potential to build strong regional workforces and a system that not only brings the right people into the profession and equips them with the right skills, but also provides the best possible ongoing training for those already doing the job.
It’s a similar approach to the one we’ve taken in education - bringing teacher training closer to schools and what’s needed in the classroom. It’s an agenda on which we’re working closely with our colleagues in Health, and I know that Jon Rouse, from the department, will be speaking to you later today.
Because we all want to ensure that, regardless of whether they work with children or adults, highly trained, highly committed social workers can do the very best for those in their care.
Innovation and excellence
And these partnerships are just one example of how, even when money is tight, a sharp focus on innovation can yield new and better ways of working that are also more cost-effective.
Now, I’m under no illusions about the financial pressures you face - something which Alison highlighted. All of us, in central and local government, are having to make tough choices. And it’s a testament to your leadership that, despite this, children services have remained a priority in the vast majority of areas.
Yet many of you are going further - reforming and innovating and not only achieving better results for vulnerable children, but also better value for money. But you’re also challenging us in government to remove barriers that are stopping you from doing things differently and more effectively.
I applaud you for this and want to encourage this excellence and innovation wherever possible - hence our decision to set up the innovation programme.
I know you’ve had the opportunity yesterday, and will again later today, to engage in some innovation fund speed dating. I don’t know whether it has been or will be love at first sight, but what I do know is that I’ve been delighted by your response so far.
With almost half of councils now involved, I have huge hope that these initiatives, collectively, offer a real opportunity to reshape the whole system as we test and spread the best.
Like the housing co-operative run by care leavers, for instance, in Stoke-on-Trent, that puts the young people in charge of the support they receive, and helps them build the skills and experience they require to live independently. If it works, we have to think hard about how to share that experience with other local authorities.
And if you still have doubts that innovation and inspection don’t necessarily go together, look at Leeds, with its deep commitment to placing families at the heart of planning and decision making. Or north Yorkshire, and the fundamental rethink in its approach to residential care and care leavers. They’ve demonstrated to Ofsted that the imaginative approaches they’re taking can make children safer.
So I’m keen to take this push for excellence and enterprise up a gear, working closely with local areas as they move from good to great and supporting new models of delivery - city regions, trusts, combined authorities - all of which will rely on the innovation and leadership of the people in this room.
And we must also harness this innovation and leadership when it comes to renewing our work on care leavers.
I know that this is a personal priority for Alison. And, having seen first-hand how hard it can be for these highly vulnerable young people to find their feet, it’s a priority I very much share.
The care leaver strategy I launched in 2013 was a good start, but it’s time to go further.
We know, for example, that some local authorities need to do more to keep in touch with their care leavers, and I’ll be writing to some of you about that issue shortly.
And only one authority in the country, just down the road from here in Trafford, has so far achieved an outstanding judgement for its services for care leavers.
I’m sure its success has at least, in part, been down to its direct engagement with the ‘new belongings’ project, funded by my department, which gives care leavers much more say in local decisions about their care.
We’d like more councils to do the same and, at both a local and national level, give better support and higher aspirations for care leavers a top spot - including ensuring, for example, they can benefit from the 3 million more apprenticeships we’ve promised to create over the course of this Parliament.
I’ve already written to my ministerial colleagues about the need to aim higher, and I look forward to working with you all to really raise our game for care leavers and, in doing so, demonstrate what corporate parenting actually means and, when done well, what it can achieve.
As I said at the start, it’s a great honour and a privilege to be standing here before you again as Children and Families Minister.
But, more importantly, it’s a mark of the faith the entire government has in our reforms that I’ve been given permission to take them to a whole new level, so that, together, we can drive transformation throughout the system.
And so I look forward to working with all of you, and the new ministerial taskforce, to deliver just that - to help create a truly world-class children’s social care system that enables all children, whatever their start in life, to be the best they can be.