Thanks to NCAS. It’s a great pleasure to be here today.
This is not an easy time to be in government at any level. It’s not an easy time to be in national government, and it’s not an easy time to be in local government. I am sure I speak for all Ministers in saying that we’re extremely grateful for all that you have done working with us over the last year at a time when I know that it hasn’t been easy for you.
Despite challenging financial circumstances, the government is determined to stick to the principles I outlined to you last year. Our priorities are early intervention; a focus on the most disadvantaged; and we want to do that by working through principles of localism.
In an ideal world I could wave a magic wand and conjure up more money. I am sure that all of you wish that you could too. But the truth is that neither of us can. You know as well as I do that the government has to tackle the deficit and we have to get the economy back onto a sound footing.
It makes it an incredibly challenging time for all of us to play a leadership role. But you don’t get to choose your moment to be in government. You only get to choose how you act. It’s more important now, than at any other time, that we have very clear priorities, and that we stick to those despite the challenging circumstances in which we’re working.
It would have been easier for us to have acceded to calls to reintroduce ring fencing, to tighten up targets, and to introduce more prescriptive guidance. We chose not to. We made a promise to you that we would give you more freedom and give you more power to act. Localism is something that we believe in and it is something that we’ve tried to stick to.
Similarly, I imagine it would have been easier for you to have cut deeply into early intervention services. But many of you have chosen not to do that this year. Most of you have worked incredibly hard to protect frontline services. Most of you have done your best to prioritise Sure Start Children’s Centres, by merging back office functions, clustering services, because you know that this makes sense. You know that it makes sense for children, it makes sense for families and, in the long term, it makes good financial sense for you if you’re running a council.
Tough times are the times when leadership comes to the fore. We know we need to give DCSs the space to fill that leadership role. We have recently issued a consultation on revised statutory guidance on the role of the DCS and Lead Member for Children’s Services.
It is much shorter and much less prescriptive. It will be up to local authorities to determine their structures. It is important that we’re able to assure ourselves that we have in place the clear line of accountability that Lord Laming and Professor Munro saw as critical to the well-being and safety of children and young people. This is a question of balance, a question where we’re trying to make sure that we clearly balance our priorities with our localist principles. I would certainly encourage you to respond to the consultation.
Part of leadership is about sharing knowledge with one another. There is an enormous amount that you can teach others, very much including myself.
We’ve seen that clearly in the 18 authorities who are participating in trials this year to develop provision or capacity for the new entitlement for two year olds.
Already some promising evidence is filtering through. For example, in Rotherham, settings have boosted the number of places they can offer through earlier opening times and stretching the offer across all weeks of the year, rather than just during term time. One setting now offers 45 places rather than 14.
Similarly, we’ve seen great examples in Medway, where they’ve created a database to track the development of each child or cohort, so that children starting to fall behind are identified promptly.
Examples like this are just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure that there will be many examples in your local authority where you know that you’re really challenging practice; that you’re taking ideas forward; that you’re doing things on the ground that others could learn from. I hope that conferences like this are opportunities for you to flaunt those examples and advertise them to others to make sure that everyone is learning from the good practice that is working on the ground.
We’ve been trying to tap into that ingenuity and good practice in the way in which we are developing policy.
Just before the summer recess we issued a document called Families in the Foundation Years. We worked on that document in a different way: through a co-production process, working with local authority representatives and professionals from the early years to make sure we were actually developing policy from the ground up.
There’s a considerable amount of work now building on that initial work that we announced in the summer. We have our consultation on Early Education and Childcare coming up. This is really important - for lead members and DCSs as well as for early years leads.
It is important because it sets out proposals for which disadvantaged two-year-olds will be eligible for free early education from September 2013.
We want to make sure that your teams have local discretion to fund other disadvantaged two years old who might benefit. In particular, that means children with disabilities or with special educational needs.
Included in the consultation is draft guidance for the delivery of free early education for 2, 3 and 4 year olds, along with strengthened criteria for free early education places so that we have a more open process for identifying quality and promoting improvement.
I think you’ll also be pleased to hear it has dropped in size from 100 pages to fewer than 20. I hope that’s good news! It’s something that we are trying to do across the piece.
And do please feed in to Professor Nutbrown’s upcoming review, which will be looking at the early years workforce, something which is incredibly important and which many of you have raised with me at previous conferences. It will be formally launched at the end of this month, through a ‘call to evidence’ to the sector. We’re very keen to hear your views, so please do get involved.
Payment by results is another good example of where the sector leading the way in shaping future services. Local authorities are supporting one other under the guidance of the ADCS, SOLACE and the LGA.
Trials of payment by results for children’s centres have started in 26 areas. These will find ways to reward children’s centres and local authorities for improvements in outcomes, rather than inputs, with a particular focus on child development, school readiness and reducing inequalities for the most disadvantaged families. We’re looking forward to hearing what makes a difference on the ground, and what needs to change.
Another critical aspect of leadership is joining up services in the interests of children. I know that this is something that you do every day in your work.
It’s something that is core to what we’ve been trying to do through our Green Paper on Special Educational Needs, and the reforms that we’re taking forward.
We want health services to be firmly integrated into a local offer, a single assessment process and the Education, Health and Care plan.
Local authority leaders have key role in achieving this ambition. I’m grateful to those of you whose teams are currently involved in the pathfinders. We’ve already seen some very exciting ideas coming out from them, and it’s a tremendous credit to the local authorities involved.
We have a lot to do to make sure that these proposals work. They’ve been developed with the ideas that have come from you and come from others over the first 18 months that we’ve been in government. A lot of work is going to be needed to hold all of those professionals’ feet to the fire, including making sure that we properly integrate that work with health, something that I know many of you feel very strongly about. I’m going to need all of your help on the ground to make sure that we develop that properly.
The pilots are trying to make sure that we look through to 25; that we deal with the issues around transition that we know are so difficult. Bringing together assessments and bringing together the role of the voluntary sector.
I hope that it will put children, young people and families at the heart of the process. Making sure the services they receive are not just about adults, but about the children and young people who are receiving them.
There are many exciting opportunities coming up for local authorities - getting more involved in public health, for example. Tom Jeffery and David Behan are giving a presentation on this subject on Friday, and looking at issues around the new relationship with public health, something that I know many of you will be interested in.
I know that this is a tough time, and I also know that it’s not going to get any easier in the short term. We both know that.
But we can’t stand still in that time, no matter how difficult it may be. We have to put in place now the right changes. The right structural changes that will benefit us in the long term. Making sure that we’re clear about our priorities. Making sure that partnership working really does work.
A great deal can change, even in days when money is short, by working better together. By changing how we work. By changing the way in which we learn from one another.
That takes leadership. And it takes a different style of leadership. Leadership which is open - open to challenge, open to new ideas. Not necessarily ideas that were started here, but also making sure that we’re making the most of ideas that started in other places too.
Let me finish by saying a huge thank you to you for all that you have done, for all the work that you’re taking forward; for all the ways that you’ve positively responded to consultations and requests that we’ve made of you for more information, detail and examples to make sure that we’re getting our policy right. I’m determined that we continue to work in that spirit, and look forward to working with you over the next twelve months.