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FEATURES - CHILDREN MATTER

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In LGC's second survey on the children's green paper Suzanne Simmons-Lewis finds education directors and their depu...
In LGC's second survey on the children's green paper Suzanne Simmons-Lewis finds education directors and their deputies are divided in their opinions

The green paper Every child matters proposes a radical reorganisation of education and social services departments.

In response to Lord Laming's inquiry report into the death of Victoria Climbié, the consultation explores ways of safeguarding children by establishing a clear framework of accountability, strong leadership and tighter co-ordination between councils and partner agencies (LGC, 12 September).

Among its proposals is the creation of a director of children's services accountable for education and children's social services in councils. Councils will also have to appoint a lead cabinet member with responsibility for both service areas. In the longer term, key services for children will be integrated under the new director in the form of children's trusts. The trusts would bring together council education and children's social services, some children's health services and others such as youth offending teams.

Although local government would have the lead role in the co-ordination of all children's services, education directors face a plethora of challenges. There is the prospect of their role being usurped to make way for a more powerful director of children services. In the new arrangements they have the difficult task of balancing the priorities of targeted services with the universal provision of education. They must ensure standards remain high on the list of priorities alongside the existing emphasis on safeguarding vulnerable children. In the interim, directors also need to lobby to ensure a greater role for schools.

LGC's anonymous national survey of 54 education directors and their deputies - following our survey of social services directors (LGC, 24 October) - reveals broad support for the 'spirit' of the green paper, but they are very critical about the workability of the structural solutions that are being mooted.

Over two thirds of education directors and their deputies who responded to the survey support the merging of education and children's social services. But this majority support at 74%, comes almost exclusively with provisos.

One director says: 'I support it if it actually delivers better services, but suspect it will in actual fact be a diversion from operational changes that could make a significant difference.'

Another says: 'It needs the human and financial infrastructure to support it.'

An overarching feeling throughout the survey is directors' hostility to any form of imposed structural change. While they advocate the logic of closer working and merged service provision, they believe it should not come at any cost.

One director cautions: 'Structural mergers before the work has been done to understand how services will best work together across a large county will be damaging.'

Another says: 'I support merging services but not organisational restructure.'

A director comments: 'Structural change will not necessarily deliver the improvements needed. Activities need to be merged but wholesale reorganisation is not necessary.'

Just 15% of respondents were completely against merging departments. One warns: 'It will take the nation's eye off every child and blur the distinction between universal and targeted services. It will also narrow education role, which is about all learners.'

The future merging of health services is seen by some as the crucial and most problematic part of the 'trinity', while some directors caution that merging services would detract from raising educational attainment.

A third of respondents have already divided their activity into adult and children's services. Two thirds had not, but of these, 42% of respondents say they have plans to merge.

One director whose services are merged explains: 'We have created a family and schools service which

is jointly funded and managed by education and social services departments. It is delivering joint agency team working.'

A few respondents say they are experimenting with pilot children's trusts but others caution that the 'reorganisation could be a major distraction'.

However, 65% of respondents say they are confident that education and social services departments would merge well. Only 24% think this will be disastrous with 11% unsure. But directors highlight the difficult task of overcoming the organisational and cultural obstacles that will emerge.

One director says: 'It will take a lot of change management - particularly to address cultural and professional issues - but we will make it work.'

Another says: 'There are major areas of culture, focus and practice to be addressed.'

But one director says: 'Education officers take an instant dislike to social workers because it saves time.'

In any merger directors emphasised the need to 'preserve a focus on school improvement'.

Over half of respondents think the post of education director is likely to be abolished. One director comments: 'What a retrograde step this will be. The Department for Education & Skills can and will ride roughshod over us.'

Only 22% believe the post will remain. One cautions: 'The director and department's relationship with autonomous schools is not thought through in the green paper.'

Another believes the decision to abolish this post should be 'down to local discretion'.

While social services directors in LGC's previous survey say they would prefer to manage the new merged education and social services functions, education directors are not keen on the idea (LGC, 24 October).

Sixty three per cent of respondents will refuse to report to a social services director, but 20% say they are willing.

One director says: 'Absolutely, categorically not.

I would resign first.' While another is agreeable: 'If the person had the right qualities and vision to lead an integrated approach.'

One respondent highlights that although they would be willing to report to a social services director: 'Schools, however, woul d have difficulties without a lead educational professional.'

However most believe this arrangement is 'very unlikely' and envisage themselves reporting to, or their post being merged into the new director of children's services.

Eighty one per cent of respondents say that children known to more than one agency do not have access to a single named professional. This was only the case for 13% of respondents.

The majority of respondents - 74% - say their councils do not have a single assessment framework across all agencies dealing with children services in the area. This was only the case for 15% of respondents. However, 11% say their councils are 'getting there'.

As recommended in the green paper almost a quarter of respondents have a lead councillor for children, but 69% did not.

Only 28% of respondents say their council is ready to take on the proposals in the green paper. 59% say their councils are 'getting there'. Just 13% say they are not prepared at all.

One director says: 'It is not about couldn't. It is 'don't wish to' - we can see even at this early stage that the idea will fall in the practice of it.'

Another director says: 'Governance and role of children's trusts is still very unclear. Muddled government thinking has resulted in overcomplicated structures.'

A more enthusiastic respondent says: 'We are taking

a steady course through - it is important to secure attitudinal and structural changes necessary for success.'

GENERAL COMMENTS ON THE GREEN PAPER

For

  • A move in the right direction.

  • Seductively positive. Delivery will be contingent on quality staff and good management.

  • Paper generally good, much inter-agency work now needed.

  • Very necessary jolt to attitudes.

  • This paper is 'spot on'. There is still however much detail to discuss, not least in relation to the new role for the director of children's services and the involvement of schools.

    Against

  • Chapters one to four are fine. We are already doing a ma ssive amount contained there. The rest is knee-jerk reacting sledgehammer tactics by a government that believes three lies. That you improve services by structural change, the centre knows best and the single model works all over the land.

  • This will be a mammoth distraction for councils such as this one where standards have to be the major undiluted focus.

  • Absurd, lacks intellectual rigour - based substantially on one case. Just where were Mr and Mrs Climbié?

  • None of the proposals are acceptable or even desirable in terms of delivering more joined-up front-line services. However it would be a mistake to believe that this can be achieved by externally imposed structural change.

    On the fence

  • Needs more work on consultation with those who will have to make it work. Timescales could be too short - issues about planning - who can be released to do it?

  • Tension evident between original child protection focus and the role of universal services added later. No recognition of the cultural issues.

  • If it delivers world-class education services - yes. However, I suspect there would be a dilemma over resources, given the pull towards reactive children's services in social services.

  • The aims are right, but a single structural arrangement across 150 councils is a nonsense and is more related to ensuring there is someone to blame when things go wrong than achieving the best for children. We should all recognise the system will never be 100% safe.
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