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News Interview: 'We are building strong relationships with children'

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Several local authorities are interested in replicating or learning from the first council-founded children’s services social enterprise, its chief executive has told LGC.

Achieving for Children was set up by Kingston upon Thames RBC and Richmond upon Thames LBC last year in the wake of Kingston’s children’s services being branded “inadequate” by Ofsted in 2013.

Speaking to LGC after Kingston made the unusual two-grade jump to “good”, the social enterprise’s chief executive Nick Whitfield told LGC he had met or spoken to more than 20 councils that were interested in the model.

Nick Whitflied

Nick Whitflied: Improving the workplace helped slash reliance on locum staff

Mr Whitfield, who is also director of children’s services for the two councils, said setting up the company had provided greater benefits than would have been realised by simply merging the two children’s services departments.

As well as overcoming the problem of councils having different cultures and payscales, it also meant the organisation could focus solely on children’s services, rather than the “other corporate needs of the council”, Mr Whitfield said.

The latest Ofsted report was published a fortnight ago and praised the councils and Achieving for Children for successfully delivering against “an ambitious improvement plan”.

Mr Whitfield said strong partnerships with schools, health and the police as well as a big focus on recruiting staff and creating a workplace where they would want to stay had been central to this improvement. Since the organisation was set up, the proportion of locum staff has fallen from 40% to 7%.

Mr Whitfield said: “We are very proud of having a very low rate of locum workers. It is not because locum workers cannot be good, but because by nature they are coming and going and we want to build strong relationships with the children we are serving.”

The company is also keen on developing leadership skills among its staff. It gives its social workers small budgets to take the children they work with out for a trip to the cinema or the park or a meal in order to build relationships with them.

A common concern among people sceptical about spinning out council services into council-owned companies such as Achieving for Children is that they might not be as democratically accountable as conventional children’s services departments. But Mr Whitfield, who was director of children’s services at Richmond before the merger, said the councils challenge them more now that they are a council-owned company working under a contract to the authorities. The contract is for seven years, with the potential for a five-year extension.

The organisation is unusual in that the councils chose to set it up rather than being forced to by government intervention. However, Achieving for Children is advising two councils – Doncaster and Slough – which have been directed by the government to put their children’s services into independent trusts following bad inspection results.

Mr Whitfield is also about to start as a government-appointed commissioner for children’s services at Sunderland City Council after Ofsted judged the service inadequate last month.

Mr Whitfield said some of the 20 councils which were interested in the model feared they may be about to get an “inadequate” rating from Ofsted. However, he said the model was not always appropriate and many actually just needed some consultancy advice.  

Consultancy is another source of income for Achieving for Children, which along with the reduction in agency staff, bureaucracy and use of office space is helping the organisation to achieve a target to realise £6m in savings over its first three years of operation.

While these measures can cushion the effects of the cuts, companies such as Achieving for Children are not immune from council budget reductions. Mr Whitfield said being a separate body from the council means that any savings stay in the company to be reinvested in front-line work with children, rather than forming part of the council’s overall savings plan.

“There is still pressure on children services as there is across the country. That exists for us as it does anywhere else,” he added.

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