The director of children’s services who played a leading role in Rotherham MBC’s children’s services improvement has said there is widespread anxiety over low levels of funding for sector-led improvement.
Debbie Barnes began supporting Rotherham when her employer Lincolnshire CC became practice improvement partner in 2016, with the county council’s deputy leader Patricia Bradwell (Con) also replacing Malcolm Newsom as commissioner for children’s social care.
Ofsted last month rated Rotherham’s children’s services ‘good’ for the first time since the child sexual exploitation scandal in the town was uncovered in 2014.
Ms Barnes told LGC the success in Rotherham shows the potential of sector-led support, but warned doubts remain over whether sufficient funding will create the capacity in the system required to drive improvements.
Ms Barnes said the £20m over three years announced by the government for sector-led support last year was welcome, but questioned why the funding made available remained far below the sums set aside for driving up standards in education. The government last year announced a £140m strategic school improvement fund to bolster sector-led support.
Ms Barnes said: “If you look at the amount of money that has gone into schools for sector-led improvement, it is massive compared to what you get for children’s services. That is a significant concern for the sector.
“We are anxious around whether [the £20m] would be sufficient funding to really make a difference.”
Children’s social care services are facing a £2bn funding shortfall by 2020, the Local Government Association and others have warned.
Ms Barnes said councils are “absolutely committed” to supporting each other to ensure children’s social care services do not get into serious difficulties, insisting such work on a regional level would continue.
But she added: “Funding from the Department for Education can enhance capacity but without a doubt, we remain anxious the level of investment is nowhere near education.
“We would question whether that is right.”
However, Ms Barnes said the sector’s improved relationship with DfE was “really positive”, with a general acceptance within the department that sector-led improvement was the way forward.
She praised new children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi, who was appointed during last month’s reshuffle, for quickly holding talks with local government organisations such as the Association of Directors of Children’s Services on the issue.
Ms Barnes said: “I genuinely feel it is the right time to be having a conversation.
“I found he was really interested and committed. It feels really positive for moving the agenda on.
“It was great so early on in his appointment that he took the time to find out about the proposals.”