This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Children's Minister on proposed improvements to children's services.
Thank you Gordon. And my thanks also to the East of England DCS group for hosting today’s conference.
This is an event I’ve been looking forward to for some time now - not least because my briefing note from officials tells me: ‘The audience is expected to be friendly…’
I’m not sure whether that’s genuine insight, or wild optimism. But either way, it’s a pleasure to be here as your guest.
And I wanted to start, if I may, by paying a very warm tribute to Gordon who, as you all know, retired yesterday as the longest running DCS in the UK
I’d question how relaxed a start this is to your retirement Gordon - but it seems fitting that you’re here - given your track record in helping children and young people not just in Cambridgeshire but also, of course, up in Stirling during what was a hugely challenging time in the aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy.
In both posts, you’ve distinguished yourself for your leadership, your expertise and your dedication to improving the lives of children.
And it is with great sadness that we lose that experience.
However, I know you leave behind an authority that is performing very well in many areas of children’s services - and that the East of England, in general, is a region that can take an enormous amount of credit for the excellent work it does in partnership working between authorities, and in the development of best practice across the region.
And that is, I think, a very strong reflection both on the quality of leadership here in the East, and on your commitment to creating fair, strong and effective family services for communities across all 11 authorities.
Across the country more generally, however, there are broad social and structural problems at play - that make achieving that commitment much harder than it should be.
We still, for instance, live in a society that is - despite the very best intentions of the previous government - less socially just than ever before. Inheriting a situation in which:
- Just 21 per cent of children in care are achieving 5 or more A to C grades at GCSE - compared to an average of 70 per cent.
- Where young people from poorer backgrounds are less than twice as likely to go on to University as those from richer backgrounds.
- And where the life expectancy of children varies hugely depending on where you’re born. In Harlesdon for example, in the constituency of my colleague Sarah Teather, a child is expected to die more than ten years before one born in neighbouring Kensington.
While in the east of England itself, boys born today in Great Yarmouth can expect to live over four years fewer than those in South Cambridgeshire.
Quite clearly, something has gone very wrong. But the question for today is not really: ‘How bad is the hole we find ourselves in?’
It is, I think: ‘How do we cope with the situation and deal with it the best we can?’
Part of the answer lies, we believe, in overcoming the fatalism that so often engulfs the debate about children from deprived backgrounds.
The sense that a young person’s future is automatically written in the stars because their parent’s postcode is CB22 instead of NR30.
While part of the answer lies in facing up to the specific structural challenges that face local authorities in both the East of England and further afield - challenges like workload, bureaucracy and tougher economic settlements.
We know, for instance, that there has been a steep rise of nearly a third in the number of child protection plans being processed over the last 24 months.
That social workers are now spending the equivalent of 285 days a year at their desks - tearing their hair out over pointless bureaucracy when they want to get out and help families.
And we know also, of course, that local authority spending has been constricted following the in-year adjustments to the Area Based Grants - that were announced in last week’s emergency budget.
One of the principle jobs of the Coalition will be to work with DCSs in the East, and other senior colleagues, to mitigate - as much as is possible - the impact of each of those pressures.
And as such, I’d like to offer assurance, from the outset, that the renaming of the Department for Education does not represent a shift in priority away from working with children’s services leaders around the country.
It would be easy to get hung up on titles, but the simple fact is, that we remain absolutely committed to improving children’s lives.
And that is reflected - clearly I think - in the fact that despite the incredibly tough financial times we find ourselves in, we have already announced we’ll protect spending on Sure Start, schools and 16 to 19 funding.
Providing excellence in children’s services
So - my first message for today, is that this coalition government is dedicated to providing excellence in children’s services, and to working closely with you to achieve that aim.
However, as Gordon has argued so persuasively in the past, the challenges we face will - I think - require some measure of ‘re-imagining of children’s services’.
What they will not require, I can assure you, is total reinvention or revolution.
And I wanted to set out today how the three primary Coalition principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility will help us achieve that.
Starting, if I can, with freedom - and our determination to reduce the morass of red tape that has grown up through well intentioned - but rarely well-instituted - programmes like Contact Point, the Integrated Children’s System and the pointless form filling that now occupies some 80 per cent of social workers’ time.
Whenever I meet those social workers, they tell me that they are itching to get back out on the beat.
And yet it is the misuse of their days, as well of the misuse of their expertise, that is simply creating more work and expense for hard stretched local authorities.
Before the election, for instance, a very frustrated council employee wrote to me saying:
Additional tasks have been given to social workers in an attempt to safeguard children. All they do is ensure social workers spend further time in the office, and less time with clients.
This is simply not, I think, a sustainable pressure to be applying to DCSs in the East or to their staff.
Stripping away bureaucracy
And while we are already, as you know, working hard to strip away similar levels of bureaucracy in our schools, we now need to repeat the trick in local authorities. And I’d like to use today to ask leaders in the East of England to take the leading role in that process.
Helping us to identify exactly where the bottlenecks are, where staff are being frustrated and where money is being wasted away on red tape.
Whilst for our part, we will look to measure LA performance far more effectively, and far less intrusively, than has been the case.
In particular, by placing greater emphasis on the quality of outcomes for children and families, rather than imposing arbitrary targets on councils for throughput.
Certainly in the past I would contend that too much of what passed for evaluation of any particular process or project, was often not much more than a measurement of quantity.
How many young people signed up for this or that particular scheme for instance, rather than a thoughtful analysis of what each individual may or may not have gained from the project.
Did it have a life changing impact on them? And how did it improve their futures?
Exactly the kind of questions we need to be asking if we’re going to create a more socially just - and fairer - society.
And exactly the kind of questions that we’ve already put to Professor Eileen Munro for her to consider in her review of social care, which is due to be completed by the Spring.
That report will build on the work of both Lord Laming and Moira Gibb, by looking at how we can improve the lives of the most vulnerable children - within a far more effective, flexible system that is less onerous for local authorities to operate under.
So, for instance, we’ve specifically requested that Eileen considers how we can introduce more effective early intervention, and how we can spread good practice more widely.
For the East of England, which is perhaps struggling more than some to reduce the effects of deprivation on outcomes, this could be particularly helpful.
Not just because we know good early intervention promotes greater fairness, but also because it provides far more effective, and far more cost effective, services.
For example, a reduction of just one per cent in the number of offences committed by children and young people, has the potential to generate savings for households and individuals of around £45 million a year.
Which is why projects like Action for Children’s Intensive Fostering are so interesting - concentrating the expertise of highly trained and motivated foster carers on teenagers on the cusp of the youth justice system.
And it’s why I’m also very interested in the work that’s going on in the Eastern region itself, in places like Suffolk, Southend and Hertfordshire which are, I know, doing a fantastic job in identifying and working with ‘high demand’ and ‘high cost’ families - and are also carrying out intensive work looking at the specific needs of young carers.
A group of dedicated volunteers who have, incidentally, been far too neglected in the past. And I was absolutely delighted to be invited to their annual get together at Fairthorne Manor last weekend.
Now, as regards best practice, I know this is an area where the East of England DCS group is particularly strong - and we would certainly want to roll out your model of partnership working right across the country.
To look at how we can copy the kind of collaboration that was used by DCSs here to improve 16 to 19 commissioning in the region, with money diverted from the regional improvement and efficiency project.
And also used to set up the Eastern Region Safeguarding Group, and bring together all the assistant directors of social care.
More generally of course, promoting that kind of good practice helps us to analyse why some authorities, with no more resources and with similar populations, are more successful than others at improving the health, education and safety of young people in their care. Nottingham, Leicester and Haringey are in the top 20 most deprived local authorities, but have all seen improvements in reducing both youth crime and teenage pregnancy recently.
With falls of between 16 and 22 per cent in the rate of teenage pregnancies, compared to a national decrease of just 0.2 per cent. And falls of up to 62 per cent in youth crime - compared to the England average.
But by the same token, other local authorities can learn just as much from the East.
Whether it’s by looking at the innovative approach to the commissioning of children’s services in Essex.
Whether it’s by looking at the excellent engagement and tracking of young people in Hertfordshire - that has seen it achieve the lowest NEET figures in the country.
Or whether it’s by looking at Bedford Borough’s poverty strategy and its excellent use of data to drive performance improvement.
In a strange way, there is a very encouraging message here. It means there are authorities out there doing really great work.
It means we can re-imagine rather than reinvent. And it means there is scope to promote greater fairness despite the tough economic outlook.
For which reason, Sarah Teather and I are looking to organise an event that gets together local authority lead members, and directors, to look at best practice, and discuss what might be transferable from one area to another.
It needs input from both local authority elected members and officers, and I’d certainly be interested to hear your own views on how we take that forward.
Predictably, it won’t be a case of funding all the good schemes we here about. What we will be doing is helping appropriate voluntary sector organisations to become part of the solution, by making it easier for them to work with statutory agencies.
And that brings me on to the final principle of the Coalition government that I wanted to mention today - responsibility.
Because all of us - DCSs, professionals, Government, the voluntary sector and families themselves, need to work together to tackle the difficulties facing our country.
That is what the Big Society is all about, and we shall be hearing a lot more about it over the coming months. And how it can empower the sector, local communities and individuals to take the lead, to pool and share their responsibilities.
Included within that reform, we are looking at increasing the role of social enterprises, charities and co-operatives in public services - by giving public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and to bid to take over the services they deliver.
And, where appropriate, by opening up public services markets to allow social enterprises, charities and co-operatives to bid to run public services.
Clearly that will have implications for local authorities, and I will work very closely with children’s services leaders as those plans are drawn up. But the key point for now is that we want local authorities and lead members to set the agenda for their communities.
We simply cannot continue to operate a centrally led regime that fails to recognise the incredible skills and professionalism of those who work with children and families.
Added to which, bureaucrats and politicians cannot possibly make knowledgeable decisions about priorities for each and every one of the 152 separate local authorities.
Even within single regions, there are hugely differing communities and issues that require DCSs to have their own flexibility and freedoms.
In the East, for example, it is likely that what works in the Broads or the Fens, is going to be different from what is needed in the urban sweep of Thurrock.
Now, before I finish - and at the risk of losing that good will of the audience that my officials were so confident about - I would like to talk briefly about the financial position we are in.
I cannot sugar coat the fact that the removal of 24 per cent of the Department’s Area Based Grant does, of course, make life harder for local authorities.
But what I can do, is say we are absolutely determined to ensure you have maximum flexibility and support to determine how you make those savings.
This is why we took the decision not to impose a reduction in the formula grant - and it is why we have ‘de-ringfenced’ a further £1.7 billion of grants.
But this is, of course, a two-way street. And the onus is as much on central as local government to think about how we make savings without effecting frontline services.
I have, for instance, already talked about the need for better use of early intervention and the need to spread good practice out more widely.
But there is also a good opportunity here to create longer term savings by responding to the Prime Minister’s Spending Challenge, which was announced last week - and gives DCSs, and their staff, a real opportunity to tell us exactly where the long term, structural savings should come from.
So, to end, I wanted to repeat my thanks again to the East of England DCS group for inviting me along today.
It is important, I always think, not just to point the finger when you are in politics, but to congratulate as well. And in the work that the East of England DCS group does, there is - quite simply - a huge amount to congratulate.
Whilst across the country generally, I know there is an incredibly talented, dedicated and skilled workforce in children’s services, from top to bottom.
We believe it is time to start trusting them to do their job by reducing bureaucracy, by devolving power from Westminster to the regions, and by giving communities back the fundamental right to set their own priorities and take responsibility for them.
These are tough times, I know. But I also sense a genuine opportunity here to build a stronger, more flexible, autonomous and fairer future for children’s services in this country.