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Jo Miller: What matters is what works in children's services

Jo Miller
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The health and social care funding challenge is well documented, with cross-sector harmony about the scale of the problem and the urgency with which it must be fixed.

I’ve been meeting ministers on behalf of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers this week as a part of that debate.

We mustn’t lose sight of children’s social care services, though. If I’m honest, that’s vexing me and my director of resources more than ever and more than adult social care. We have a national problem and we need to fix it.

I’m not averse to new models for delivery of any service, children’s services included, and I know I’m showing my age when I use the old adage ‘what matters is what works’. I’ve been quoted in LGC before about children’s social care being the last bastion of professional narcissism and nothing gets my goat more than an insistence that only qualified professionals can carry out certain tasks. It takes a village to raise a child and the fantastic efforts of so many of our social workers, school staff, police and community help make children safe.

In 2008, 78% of children’s services were judged good or outstanding by Ofsted. Today, the same figure attaches to those judged as requiring improvement or inadequate. During the same period the demand for children’s services has increased by 65% and the number of children on child protection plans has increased by 60%. Is this credible? Is that really what has happened to public services in eight years? Do these demand figures reflect what’s happening in families in everyday Britain? Most importantly, is this state of affairs helping keep more children safe? I’d wager it is not.

During this time, the responsibility for children’s services improvement was lost from the multi- agency Children’s Improvement Board led by the Local Government Association, which really worked, and handed to Ofsted, which while expert at marking the homework have yet to play an active part in the approach to supporting improvement. Research and experience shows that one-word ratings, far from helping services improve, simply make improvement more difficult. Not that it should take Ofsted to arrive for us to know how we are performing; the opposite is true.

In my mind, any useful assessment would include value for money alongside quality; it’s not about being good whatever the price. So new models of children’s social care delivery can’t ignore efficiency and the wider financial picture. Deckchair-moving will not solve the challenge. Children’s social care providers do not exist on some higher moral plain.

I would like to see improvement back where it is done best, a refocus of Ofsted and a children’s social care system that is affordable and works. That means more of a focus on whole-family working, finding resilience in a family and bolstering it, and managing risk sensibly rather taking a totally risk-averse approach. The biggest risk we face is that of continuing with unaffordable, underachieving systems in perpetuity. What matters is what works.

Jo Miller, chief executive, Doncaster MBC; and president, Solace

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