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Slough's rocky road shows challenges of children's trust model

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Commentary on Slough Children’s Trust’s slow improvement from inadequate.

The announcement in 2014 that Slough BC would lose control of its children’s services demonstrated the then government’s growing appetite for a trust model. This wrenched away not just operational control from the council but also, in circumstances that were fraught with political and management unease, any sense the council had strategic oversight and democratic accountability for such crucial services.

Slough’s descent into failure was steep. Ofsted had said in 2010 that services were performing well but by the following year significant shortcomings had been found in child protection work, particularly with regards to children who had already been identified as suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm.

Widespread and serious failing continued until the government lost patience and made Slough the second council after Doncaster MBC deemed to have reached a point of no return. Then children’s minister Edward Timpson said the capacity for improvement was so lacking, only an independent trust model would address the serious concerns over governance and leadership.

David Cameron’s assertion the following year that the government would remove control of children’s services from councils without the “immediate” capacity to address failings suggested that the independent trust model was not only here to stay but was likely to become an increasingly prevalent response to struggling services.

However, Slough Children’s Services Trust’s rocky road out of inadequacy shows the immediacy of improvement the government had sought proves illusive.

In February 2015, after Slough’s chief executive Ruth Bagley had strongly opposed the new model, it emerged that the creation of the trust had been hit by delays, with a report to the council’s overview and scrutiny committee suggesting there were “a number of significant risks” arising from the creation of a new organisation, including that it could undermine improvements already being made to children’s services.

In the meantime, Kingston upon Thames RBC had made an unusual two-grade jump from ‘inadequate’ in 2013 to ‘good’ after taking upon itself to set up the community interest company (CIC) Achieving for Children to deliver children’s services in a partnership with with Richmond upon Thames LBC.

In its 2016 Putting Children First strategy, the government continued to assert that councils must improve struggling services substantially within six months or face having a new model imposed on them. It expressed an ambition that a third of councils must be in the process of handing responsibilities to an independent trust, or had completed the process, by 2020.

But other alternative models of delivery were emerging which were not defined by an imposed and immediate rupture that may lead to an ongoing structural and strategic schism.

Government commissioner Nick Whitfield, the architect of Achieving for Children, was establishing the first voluntary trust wholly owned by Sunderland City Council. While Birmingham City Council had begun a process that would led to the creation of a similar CIC model to Achieving for Children.

Meanwhile, the new arrangements in Slough were still experiencing problems. In February 2016, the government allowed the council to bring education services back in house as the short timescale for transferring a large workforce and budget responsibilities threatened to impact negatively on children’s social care.

In the following December following a positive monitoring visit by Ofsted, trust directors told LGC progress had been made possible by building a completely new relationship. This came after the suspension of Ms Bagley and a change in political leadership.

However, while subsequent monitoring visits highlighted some progress, they also said some areas in which improvement had been too slow.

In what is hardly a vindication of the government’s decision to move services into a wholly independent trust, it was only this week, well over three years after the organisation was launched, that children’s social care services are no longer deemed inadequate – and still require improvement.

By contrast, Birmingham Children’s Trust achieved the same level of improvement in a report published in January this year, having only been launched in April 2018.

Doncaster Children’s Trust, the first to be established in 2014, only last year achieved a ‘good’ rating after being judged inadequate in 2015.

This is not to say that there is yet a convincing body of evidence that independent trusts, as opposed to trusts wholly-owned by councils, struggle to be more effective quicker.

Achieving for Children in Sunderland is still facing challenges, with an inadequate rating following the last inspection in May last year.

However, the inevitable disruption caused by the original independent model is likely to have hindered attempts to gain early momentum.

Its blunt imposition from the centre, rather than voluntary nature of wholly-owned trusts which enable the internal development and alignment of shared strategies and goals with the councils involved, was always destined to complicate the already complex business of improvement.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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