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Renewed DfE trust over children's services improvements appears earned but will be tested

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LGC commentary on recent government children’s services interventions

The recent flurry of government directions issued regarding children’s services has shown there remains energy and determination in Whitehall and Westminster to drive up standards across a system in which Ofsted has found nearly three-quarters of top-tier councils do not meet basic requirements.

The Putting Children First strategy, published in July last year, for now remains the current administration’s template for change with its focus on structural solutions being key to “unlocking improvement” and dealing with budgetary pressures.

But three recent directions illustrate that while alternative models of delivery may remain the preferred option when the most serious and long-term failings are identified, the hard interventions which saw independent trusts imposed in Slough and Doncaster may be a thing of the past.

The latest directions are characterised by a focus on the importance of sector-led support to drive sustainable improvements, while containing flexibilities and processes for councils to influence the way forward.

Commissioner Nick Whitfield, the architect of the social enterprise company Achieving for Children now co-owned by Kingston upon Thames and Windsor and Maidenhead RBCs and Richmond upon Thames LBC, has recommended that Reading BC should lose direct control of its children’s services.

But he concluded that a new “format” in Reading was needed “for budgetary reasons alone” and was keen to stress, as he was when setting up Together for Children in Sunderland last year, that “the removal of services from the council is… not something being done to the council but is rather something being done with the council in order to ensure high-quality services for children and families in the borough”.

A direction issued to Tower Hamlets has stopped short of insisting on structural change, but has resulted in “intervention advisors” from Islington LBC and Lincolnshire CC being appointed to support and assess the council’s improvement efforts.

Eleanor Brazil helped to oversee the creation of Doncaster Children’s Trust when director of children’s services at Doncaster MBC and was appointed government commissioner to direct the creation of Slough Children’s Trust.

Tellingly, last week she rejected the option for a similar model in Kirklees Metropolitan Council due to concerns over service deterioration and cost, instead recommending the council enter into a formal strategic partnership with Leeds City Council.

Kirklees leader David Sheard (Lab) voiced his approval for the arrangement saying the partnership was flourishing, with clear evidence of improvement.

Yesterday Worcestershire CC, where commissioner Trevor Doughty questioned the capacity of the council’s senior leadership to address “deep-seated cultural problems”, was still afforded the freedom to work with Mr Doughty and Essex CC to choose a new model to drive improvement.

As well as options to outsource services or establish an independent company owned by its board, as in Slough and Doncaster, the council can consider forming a strategic partnership with another local authority or creating a joint venture.

Before the general election, directors of children’s services told LGC that progress had been made in talks with the Department for Education over a move away from hard intervention as the default response to failures in favour of encouraging support between councils both before and after children’s services get into difficulties. 

There was relief in the sector that Justine Greening remained at the department following fears such progress could have been quickly reversed if she had been replaced.

But DfE may itself have been looking for an excuse to retreat from the trust solution due to concerns over the long-term financial sustainability of the model.

LGC has reported on anxiety within government over the high start-up costs it covers for new trusts, as well as ongoing VAT liabilities of the new models which totalled £6.5m in Slough and Doncaster over three years alone.

Recent directions suggest the DfE under Ms Greening remains in listening mode and indicate local government has earned some trust and won some room to manoeuvre over the future of children’s services delivery – even if the costs associated with trusts may have contributed to the government taking a softer stance.

But with serious concerns over growing financial pressures in children’s services, which sector leaders have warned are already impacting on efforts to protect children and support families, this improved relationship between councils and the DfE could well be tested, but must be maintained to meet future challenges.

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