The £20m pledged by the government to drive improvement in children’s social care services will not prevent some councils failing and a case for further funding must be made that fits with the “Treasury mentality”, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has said.
Speaking to LGC at the National Conference of Adult and Children’s Services last week, Alison Michalska said the funding announced on Thursday by children’s minister Robert Goodwill to bolster sector-led support for struggling councils was “very welcome”.
But she admitted to being in the dark over whether the £20m would be redirected from existing funding streams, a one-off payment or recurrent and said work was underway to devise a strategy to secure further government investment in preventative early intervention services that are approaching a “cliff-edge”.
Ms Michalska said: “We can’t magic more qualified and experienced social workers or managers and we desperately need more foster carers. There is a whole range of things we need as part of a solution but as a sector we now have an opportunity to put far more rigour, structure and teeth around what we have been doing in sector-led improvement.
“£20m will not buy a system with no failing authorities but hopefully it will buy a system that has more capacity to build upon its expertise to continually improve.”
Mr Goodwill said the new approach will see the testing of “regional improvement alliances” which will be established across England by next year. These would involve neighbouring councils “challenging each other on standards, agreeing local improvement priorities and sharing best practice”.
The “partners in practice” programme, which currently involves 10 councils, will be extended and the new funding invested in increasing capacity within the system.
Ms Michalska, who is corprorate director of children and families at Nottingham City Council, said there had been concern that the performance of stronger councils that are working with struggling partner councils could deteriorate as they focus resources elsewhere.
She added: “Good local authorities will not remain good unless they are given some capacity to start concentrating all their support somewhere else as it will impact on their own services.
“Clearly the Department for Education will be expecting the bulk of this money will be adding capacity to councils that are good, or where there is areas of expertise.”
She said there was still work to be done to establish formal improvement partnerships such as the one being developed between Leeds City Council and Kirklees MBC.
“Children can only be in the care of one local authority so will Kirklees children technically come into the care of Leeds? That will be need to be worked out,” she added.
Ms Michalska recently said that the “terrifying scale” of domestic abuse and rising demand at a time of limited resources means councils are forced to focus on high-risk cases rather than prevention.
LGC analysis revealed that children’s social care is proportionally putting greater pressure on councils’ spending plans than adult services while the Local Government Association has estimated that there will be a £2bn funding gap in children’s social care services by 2020.
However, Ms Michalska said the sector must devise a strategy that focuses on a practical solution to rising demand rather than just asking for more funding in order to convince the government to take action.
She said: “What we have to do is get a coherent strategy that we can take to the Treasury about not so much is there a funding gap or not but what is it that needs to be done differently.
“Everyone knows about the early-intervention cliff edge. We need to be able to articulate what we think the money needs to be spent on in a way that makes sense in that Treasury mentality.”
Ms Michalska said the DfE had made it clear it would still intervene when councils are rated inadequate but added that properly resourced regional alliances would prevent service failure and reduce the “eye-watering costs” of the current approach.
She said an alternative delivery model was sometimes required as struggling children’s services were often a symptom of wider corporate failure within councils.
Ms Michalska added: “I think there will always be the scenario where a trust or a different delivery model is the right solution and when we have identified that - and it might be before a local authority has gone into intervention, it might be as part of [the sector support] process - we just need to get on with that quickly so it doesn’t delay improvement.”