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Questions posed by the Commons education committee during the final session of its inquiry into government proposals for the overhaul of children’s services provided an interesting insight into what its final report could focus on.
Isabelle Trowler, England’s chief social worker for children and families, and architect of the planned new assessment and accreditation model for social workers, faced some awkward questions about her role and the “seismic, lasting and comprehensive” reform taking place in a financially challenging climate.
She was keen to emphasise her independence from government and her belief that the changes were less about being critical of frontline practice and more about creating a national infrastructure to enable improved service delivery.
Her evidence suggested it was the failure of some councils to invest in the workforce that had contributed to service weaknesses, rather than a lack of ability on the frontline or funding constraints which have resulted in the stripping back of administrative support, early intervention and youth services.
But when challenged on whether the government should provide extra targeted funding for continuous professional development, it was clear Ms Trowler was in an uncomfortable position.
After being pushed on the issue, she conceded that it was “probably not” the responsibility of government to help struggling councils fund CPD, despite previously asserting that it was key to driving improvement and throwing doubt on some councils’ capacity to deliver.
There was a strong sense that under pressure councils will have to find extra money to fund the new requirements under the accreditation and assessment regime, or risk losing management responsibility for children’s social services altogether if performance dips.
But some committee members appeared unconvinced by the logic of creating an infrastructure which would create further, potentially costly, responsibilities on councils already struggling with demand.
The direction of travel appears to be towards establishing alternative models for delivery, such as trusts and external companies, which operate outside of traditional, direct local government control.
A government commissioned report into delivering children’s services outside councils has been promised “at some future date”, despite being due for completion in September 2014.
During the committee session, children’s minister Edward Timpson was keen to emphasise the reported successes of independent, not-for-profit trusts in Slough and Doncaster, but the case remains to be made that removing democratic accountability and established structures will ultimately improve efficiency and minimise risk.