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Social care trust’s ‘creative tension’ to deliver results for children, council report claims

Social care trust’s ‘creative tension’ to deliver results for children, council report claims

🕔20.Jul 2016

Members of Birmingham city council’s cabinet will soon take the first steps along a road that is likely to lead to the children’s social services department being transferred from local authority control to a trust. Chief blogger Paul Dale examines the options, and the tensions, as Labour councillors are asked to make “a huge decision”.

Children’s services cabinet member Brigid Jones has written a carefully crafted report explaining why she thinks it is advisable for the council to explore options for a trust.

Put simply, Cllr Jones has to convince fellow Labour councillors that children’s social care will never improve sufficiently while under direct council control and that an independent trust model is the only solution “for the sake of our young people”.

There is some presentational difficulty here, to say the least.

Birmingham children’s social care has been in Government special measures for more than seven years and is still classed as inadequate and failing to protect vulnerable young people. Yet, as the council enters the third year of an improvement programme, Jones is on record as having stated that the department will soon be good enough to stand on its own feet and exit from special measures.

Why, then, is a trust felt necessary?

The decision has been made more sensitive by the intervention of Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw who wrote to the Education Secretary a week ago repeating his view that Birmingham council leaders are incapable of delivering the children’s services reforms required. He also urged the Government to ensure that any independent trust put in place by the council really is ‘independent’.

The message from Cllr Jones, coded in places, is that there is no guarantee the improvements made so far will be maintained if the department remains under direct council control, and the lessons of history suggest a downhill slide is more rather than less likely.

In a clear warning to colleagues who may instinctively feel the council must maintain control at all costs, she says:

Our goal is for every child to have a fantastic childhood – but we must remember it is the outcomes that are important, rather than being wedded to a particular way for these outcomes to be achieved.

This is why we announced a few weeks ago that we are exploring a trust model, as a way of stepping up to the next level and ensuring sustainable improvement.

But this is a huge decision: if we do this it must be because it is the right thing to do. There must be a clear case for change before that change happens.

She adds that in the past there have been “endemic system issues” that have prevented the council from achieving its goal of protecting all vulnerable children in Birmingham.

Cllr Jones makes the case for a trust:

A trust model, predominantly about children’s social work, can represent children with a strong clear voice to the council, partners and to the city. It can mobilise joint commissioning and support better joined-up thinking and partnering.

Above all, it can be designed in a way that supports a single and unwavering focus on providing the best services to children and families.

She urges colleagues to keep at the forefront of their minds that any new arrangements must “allow us to do great social work, providing great outcomes for children.”

Her cabinet report is backed up with research by consultants Deloitte. It is an acknowledgement to council leader John Clancy’s openness policy that the report has seen the light of day for it is precisely the type of document that would have been kept hidden a year or so ago.

The Deloitte report explores options for what the Government calls Alternative Delivery Models (ADMs) and lists a number of trust options including a limited company, a community interest company, a joint venture between the council and a not-for-profit provider, an employee-owned mutual, and even transferring the department to a charity.

The report makes it clear the trust arrangements would amount to a radically different way of doing things:

A new model would facilitate creative tension in which the city council as commissioner and the new organisation as provider would consider and decide upon difficult issues together. In this way, a new model allows for a focus on what matters for children – it allows for bold decisions and decisive action.

Deloitte state plainly that they don’t think the council has the capability to deliver the “step change” required to “sustain the current improvement and create a stable and supportive system that enables further improvement”.

The report warns:

Birmingham has had a prolonged period of difficulty and certainly has not been able to sustain a period of confident children’s social work under current models.

The historical and current evidence together indicates that it would be difficult to secure the desired continued improvements at the pace required, whilst children’s services continues to operate in-house within the current system.

The advantages of a trust, according to Deloitte, are:

It would be predominantly about children’s social work services and can represent that sole purpose with a strong, clear voice to the council, partners and to the city.

It can mobilise more joint commissioning and support better joined up thinking and partnering. Above all, its business is children, and it can be designed in a way that supports a single and unwavering focus on providing the best services to children, young people and families.

The new Birmingham model will have the ability to remove barriers to improvement and sustain progress by optimising the system as a whole, rather than simply optimising the separate parts.

Deloitte point out that a new model for children’s services would be an organisation with over £100 million budget located in a major city with a good chance of establishing “a high quality board” to bring expertise, experience and skills to children’s services.

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