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DfE must put money where its mouth is on sector-led improvement

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Commentary on sector-led improvement in children’s social care

A speech by former education secretary Nicky Morgan to members of the County Councils Network in July 2016 marked both a low point and a turning point in relations between the Department for Education and local government.

A bullish Ms Morgan, likely sensing that she was hours from the sack, tore into councils over standards in children’s social care and education, citing a “soft bigotry of low expectations”. The back-bench bound Ms Morgan hit out at critics of her support for forced academisation and threw doubt on the future role of councils perceived to be failing vulnerable children.

While some eyebrows were raised and cheeks puffed in the audience, the promised but later downgraded government review of councils’ role in education and children’s social care was welcomed by some who saw it as an opportunity to right some wrongs over the government’s view of councils’ performance and potential given the right financial and regulatory circumstances.

The children’s social sector was still in the throes of an Ofsted regime perceived to be based on a flawed framework which was costly, over-simplistic in approach and not conducive to driving improvement. For many, the limits of the system and the damage done by regulation were personified by Ofsted’s leadership.

Ofsted chair at the time Sir Michael Wilshaw, quite rightly enraged by some unacceptable failings in the system, was seen as taking his criticism of some politicians, senior managers and councils too far, and operating as a destructive force, rather than a force for good.

Now 18 months, two education secretaries and a new inspection framework on, directors of children’s services and their staff have some reasons to be positive.

Improved dialogue coincided with a significant change in tone from Ms Morgan’s successor, Justine Greening, who must get credit for laying the groundwork for progress and renewing confidence that the sector would be respected and listened to.

Moreover, a subsequent new inspection framework, described as a system (things working together) rather than a programme (ordered, strictly defined), is underpinned by the principle of driving up improvement, rather than serving as a hindrance to required transformation in practice, strategy and organisational culture.

One of the framework’s key architects, Eleanor Schooling, offered reassurance by saying the new system aimed to place fewer demands on councils and prevent damaging “big shocks”.

In her first annual report as Ofsted chair, Amanda Spielman struck a distinctly different tone from her predecessor when she praised the “exceptional dedication and commitment of the people who serve children and learners in this country”. She also took the significant step of acknowledging the increasingly perilous financial and social circumstances within which children’s departments are operating by admitting councils in areas of lower deprivation, and those with a higher spend on children’s social care, were more likely to receive a higher inspection rating.

While the new regulatory framework offers reasons to be optimistic, evidence also suggests that government’s confidence in the ability of local government to drive up and maintain standards, which was so lacking under Ms Morgan and Mr Wilshaw due to their brow beating bravado, continues to grow.

A number of formal improvement partnerships are being developed to support struggling councils, rather than the push to establish independent trusts that appeared inevitable a couple of years ago. A telling moment came in September last year when government commissioner Eleanor Brazil rejected an option to create a trust in Kirklees. She said this was due to concerns about cost and the risk of services deteriorating and opted for a formal improvement partnership with Leeds City Council instead.

The scale and the pace of improvement at Rotherham MBC, in which practice partner Lincolnshire CC played a pivotal role, clearly reinforces the case for how effective sector-led support can be after the council received its first ‘good’ rating since the child sexual exploitation scandal in the town.

But the capacity for this support was reinforced under government intervention, with a day rate paid by the DfE to Lincolnshire that guaranteed the necessary focus and resources were available to meet the scale of the challenge. However, as Lincolnshire director of children’s services Debbie Barnes, who played a key role in Rotheram’s success, points out there are no such guarantees that the funding needed for effective sector-led support at scale will become available.

The £20m pledged by the government last year to bolster capacity for support within the system was welcome but falls well short, particularly when compared with the funds invested in sector-led improvement in education and the fast-approaching £2bn funding gap in children’s social care budgets.

As evidence of a change of approach at DfE the £20m is significant but with the arrival of new education secretary Damian Hinds comes uncertainty.

However, Ms Barnes told LGC she had been encouraged by early meetings with new children’s minister Hadhim Zahawi, who has shown himself to be keen to engage with the sector on how he can help it be self-improving.

The importance of an open dialogue, mutual respect and an acknowledgement of the challenges facing councils by government, along with a regulatory framework that seeks to aid rather than hinder improvement, should not be downplayed.

But improvements at scale will only occur when the DfE commits, with the help of local government, to banging on the Treasury’s reinforced door so (after all the encouraging words) it can put the money where its mouth is.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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