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High numbers of young people in care damages lives and soon becomes a financial millstone. Alan Adams and Sue Richa...
High numbers of young people in care damages lives and soon becomes a financial millstone. Alan Adams and Sue Richards explain their response to Every child matters

The Audit Commission's study of joint reviews, Old virtues, new virtues, cites Wokingham DC's children's service as an example of comprehensive and successful change from a low base. Wokingham's experience holds important lessons for all councils implementing Every child matters.

In 2002, a joint review by the Audit Commission and the Social Services Inspectorate praised Wokingham for significantly improving the lives of children and their families quickly and with limited resources, through its modernised and refocused service.

The number of children in care was reduced by 33% and the fostering rate increased by 20% in four years. Over 40% of the original children's budget was saved over five years, with approximately half of it reinvested in family support and half delivered as savings. The commitment to serving children was advanced strongly in the corporate arena and in education, housing, leisure and health services.

But how did we achieve this?

Wokingham became a new unitary authority in 1998, with a frightening 10% gap between the inherited expenditure and the actual budget - most of the problem was in social services which provided a mixed statutory response. Budgetary success was a political imperative.

We created a joint department of housing and social services, with reduced management and support but no cuts to our training budgets, which were targeted to develop our staff so we could increase our capacity and move quickly.

Underpinning all our efforts was a commitment to support children in their own families or networks, develop effective family support strategies, and promote an open culture in which staff felt appreciated, supported and effectively managed.

Our initial analysis used research which showed high numbers of children in care, and low fostering rates. All too often, high numbers in care are blamed on admissions, and therefore neglect possible changes in discharge practice. However we looked for a clear strategy to shift budgets away from high-cost placements towards low-cost prevention.

Ensuring clear leadership and strong lines of accountability were crucial, along with adequate strategic support and control.

When putting new policies into practice, we remain faithful to the four key messages from Every child matters.

On supporting parents, we moved families to the centre of the process. We held family group conferences and targeted additional resources at individual children, finding alternatives to legal proceedings.

On early intervention and protection, we developed a multi-agency family support strategy and created incentives for family networks to care for children, for example through residence allowances. A menu of parenting projects was run by a partnership board of health, social care, education and voluntary sector representatives.

On accountability and integration, we developed the management and strategic capacity to deliver change, and strengthened top to bottom accountability so staff felt supported in taking properly assessed risks.

On workforce reform, we concentrated on staff training and appraisal. One-to-one coaching supported social workers adapting to our new policies. Effective staff communication included regular opinion surveys and open meetings with senior managers. We developed a good recruitment and retention strategy, and our workforce plan improved morale and stability.

We prioritised and were pragmatic, moving resources quickly. With falling numbers in residential care we transformed a children's home into an innovative resource and respite unit for children with disabilities. Fieldwork teams and family centres developed a wide range of supportive programmes and assessment techniques. Housing management, human resources, IT and capital investment supported the change agenda.

Every child matters is an opportunity to harness the skills of staff in many disciplines, with different perspectives. This results in an open culture that values them all and is clear and accountable. Developing this culture is the key leadership challenge.

Two years on from the review, the number of looked-after children reduced by 42% and fostering increased by 27%. Developing these strong foundations helped the council to achieve a successful children's trust bid, designed to take it in a new direction, developing multi-agency care pathways and delivering more joined-up services. Now Wokingham's services for children and young people are being integrated into an all-encompassing service.

Our work started from a particularly difficult base within a small council, but we all face a unique set of circumstances. Wokingham's experience and the lessons we learned should encourage others to believe that substantial and speedy progress is possible.

Alan Adams

Former director of housing and social services, Wokingham DC, and current director for adults and community care, Surrey CC

Sue Richards

Former head of children and families services, Wokingham DC, and current director for children and families services, Northamptonshire CC

Lessons to learn from this exercise

-- Organisations fit for the challenge of Every child matters have high staff morale, relatively low vacancy rates, and good strategies that can be put in place quickly. Healthy organisations that are fit for purpose take care of problems naturally.

-- The legislation poses questions of structure which must be addressed. A new structure can help if the organisation is ready for it. If it is seen as the solution to a problem, it is at best a distraction. If the resulting complexities cannot be managed, it is a step backwards. Prepare carefully because we only deliver through culture, staff and partnerships.

-- Set a vision and strategies, including support strategies such as workforce plans, asset management and information. Keep themessages simple and work hard to gain understanding and commitment.

-- Define your success entirely in terms of improved results for children and their families, informed by research. Keep this focus on the child throughout: what is best for the child? How do you know? This is an essential reality check on the speed and nature of your progress during a time of complex change.

-- Strong, focused leadership is key and must include the ability to put policy into practice. Inspirational speeches are important but you have to make it happen.

-- The more complex the set up, the clearer the individuals' and organisations' responsibilities and contributions should be . We must learn the lessons of the past.

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