Dear Cabinet member,
The future of social work with children and families in Birmingham
On Tuesday you will consider a report prepared by Deloitte on the Birmingham children’s services model which sets out 19 potential models for delivering children’s social care services and a framework of critical success factors which a model would need to meet. The Cabinet report recommends that these different delivery models are appraised by Deloitte over the summer and a report with preferred options should be presented to Cabinet in September.
The argument made for an alternative model of delivery is that it will provide a total focus on social work. Denying evidence of local authorities such as Leeds which have made effective change and improvement the Deloitte report makes spurious claims for the case for change in Birmingham. Paradoxically the Deloitte report says very little about social work and social working with children and families in the context of a new organisation. This is not a social work centred report.
1. This is a politically driven top-down re-organisation
The move towards potentially spinning off key children’s social care services in Birmingham to a ‘Voluntary Trust’ is being driven by pressure from the DfE and the pursuit of its social work reform agenda. The Government has stated that “our ambition is that, by 2020, over a third of all current local authorities will either be delivering their children’s services through a new model or be actively working towards a different model.” The consideration of alternative delivery models (ADM) in Birmingham is being externally imposed on the city rather than having evolved from local circumstance and need.
The Education Select Committee report on Social Work reform, published on 6th July 2016, advises significant caution in the pursuit of Trust models of delivery:
We recommend that the Government assess the effectiveness of the existing independent trusts before expanding the model any further. Statutory children’s services should remain in local authority control until there is clear evidence that the independent trust model improves outcomes for children and young people.
Since Birmingham City Council voted in June to explore the ‘Voluntary Children’s Trust’ option it should reconsider its position in regard to these critical concerns raised by the Education Select Committee report. The Select Committee Report sets out that improving the working conditions of social workers and addressing critical recruitment and retention issues does not require the imposition of new delivery models and can be successfully delivered by local councils.
2. An unsubstantiated case for change
On page 4 of the Deloitte’s options paper we find the following free standing statement:
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.
This is an unsupported assertion. No previous evidence or assessment of that evidence has been provided to Council or Cabinet which supports this key claim for change and the move to a Trust arrangement. It was not substantially addressed in the comprehensive set of papers provided to the Council meeting on 14th June 2016 which together paint an altogether more complex and ambivalent picture of the potential of the Trust model.
This claim by Deloitte must be questioned and challenged given the significance of the decision to pursue the Trust model and the attendant risks involved for fragile services in recovery and ultimately for the possible impact on vulnerable service users. Further Lord Norman Warner’s assessment of future commissioning options including the Trust should be published and put into the public domain.
3. Making use of “Academy style freedoms”
If it is Birmingham City Council’s intention to use the new “Academy style freedoms” via Clause 15 (now Clause 29) of the Children and Social Work Bill, should it become law, it should specify which “freedoms” it is seeking to utilise and to what end, and the potential implications for the rights of children in its care. This should be part of the present discussions alongside the alternative delivery model.
Clause 15 (now 29) is entitled ‘Children’s social care: different ways of working’. Its stated purpose is “to enable a local authority in England to test different ways of working with a view to achieving better outcomes under children’s social care legislation or achieving the same outcomes more efficiently.”
The clause would allow Local authorities to seek a derogation via the Secretary of State from certain statutory duties and requirements. This has been one of the most contested parts of the Children and Social Work Bill in the Grand Committee stage over the summer. A key criticism is that it removes legal protections and rights for individual children.
4. There is no vision for social work practice within the new system
Although the proposed move toward a new delivery model is framed positively in regard to valuing social workers and enabling more effective social work it is peculiarly visionless and colourless in regard to the purpose and content of future social work practice with children and families in this city.
The options paper offers an evaluation framework for the 19 organisational options based on how far each model is able to mitigate a set of negative organisational constraints. This frames proposed change in an utterly technocratic and managerial way. Here we have a set of negative freedoms to allow Senior Managers to “innovate” in the system. So the question is posed if there is to be a ‘step change’ what is that change for and who are the agents of that change?
If there is to be a step change the matter should not be about ADM’s but informed by wider debate about the future role of social work in Birmingham and how these services promote social justice in this deeply divided city. The Council needs to engage with the wider public about what should be the future relationship between social work led services, social workers, children and families and their communities.
Returning to the Deloitte report the limited case so far made for an alternative delivery model fails to provide a theory of change as to how a new organisational model will provide the conditions that will allow social work practice to flourish. Rather here ADM’s presents a Black box model that fails to explain anything beyond the assertion of the perceived advantages of Le Grand’s ‘clean break’. Such a theory of change would be of particular relevance to the evaluation of range of models of delivery.
Further, Dame Eileen Munro in her final report of her review of the Child Protection system sets out a process for redesigning children’s social work services; the knowledge and experience of children and families and social work professionals are central to effectively informing and changing services for the better.
In any review and redesign, just as the system must listen to the experiences and views of the professionals working with children and families, so it must listen to the children themselves. Besides many social workers feeling that they lack the necessary skills and confidence in undertaking direct work with children, another obstacle is lacking the necessary time. Social workers’ priorities are, in large part, not a personal choice but set by the organisation in which they work.
Where are the voices of frontline social workers in saying what they need to practice more effectively with families in Birmingham? Where are the views of children and their families engaged with social care services? Although the Deloitte report say they spoke to staff it does not reflect the direct experiences of the organisational difficulties of working on the frontline.
This options report is a top-down technocratic exercise being led by a private sector consultancy. Rather what is required is the establishment of Council sponsored independent commission on the future of social work with children and families in this city with critical social work input.
5. Fragmentation of Children’s social care services
“A children’s services trust model would be predominantly about children’s social work services.”
The Deloitte report implies a Trust composed of a reduced core of social work services including assessment, safeguarding, and LAC functions. While the report identifies that decisions need to be made about the range of services to be included within the remit of the Trust proposal e.g. position of services for disabled children and Youth Offending, these are fundamental not incidental matters.
This is not just an organisational question but impinges on the role of ‘social work practice and leadership’ across different service areas and the implications for those services not to be included in the Trust. This returns us to the point made above of the absence of any vision of the role and purpose of social work inside and outside the Trust remit.
It also raises the wider and unconsidered issue of the impact of a Trust on the whole as well as on all the parts of children’s social care services and wider the continuum of children’s services at different tiers of intervention e.g. Early help, Children in need. There is partial recognition of this point in the risk analysis contained in the report, which identifies that “children’s services becomes too narrow in its focus as a result of separation from the Council.”
There are potential risks of creating a residual core of services organised around safeguarding and LAC functions which could have negative consequences for children within the wider child welfare system in Birmingham who do not cross Section 47 thresholds. For example the latest OFSTED Annual Report identified national concerns regarding the paucity and quality of support for children assessed to be in need. A Children’s Trust with a strong institutional voice within corporate and governance systems could have perverse effects upon the wider range of children’s services and in the allocation of resources between them particularly in the context of continuing ‘austerity’.
6. Costs of establishing an Alternative Delivery model
The risk analysis starts to identify the possible range of significant costs involved in setting up a Trust to take over running services. These include establishing “a design and transition team, separate leadership posts and shadow governance to manage change. Plan staff involvement and consider recruitment of specialist change resource.” Then there are the legal costs including “Potential legal implications of re-procuring or terminating existing services.” The report does identify the need to modelling the costs early in the design phase.
These new organisational costs will be going to fund lawyers, management consultants, and HR specialists not going to fund frontline work with children and families. These likely costs should also be put into the perspective of other previous and planned cuts to children’s services and the continued shrinkage of universal services for children and families. The reconfigured Early Years services which is to be put out to tender will be operating with a planned budget cut of around a third.
As Senior Officers seek to place this Local Authority at the cusp of the Government’s social work reform agenda the wise words of Professor Ray Jones should be listened to carefully by Councillors and Cabinet members before a point of no return is reached. In an interview with The Guardian last week Prof Jones highlighted local authorities such as Essex, Cornwall, Hampshire, and Leeds which have been recognised for the improvements they have made to children’s social care:
None have gone for fancy structural reforms; they have concentrated on the basics: investment, stability, professional support, and ensuring frontline staff have manageable caseloads. “What they have all got is experienced, wise, senior managers who stay close to their frontline, are fired up by professional values and confidence, and create the context and culture to do good social work. I contrast that with other places which, willingly or unwillingly, are having their lives made more complicated, more disrupted, and where any drive towards continuity is being undermined by a government imposing change.”…
“The idea that local authorities are opposed to or resist change, or that the social work profession resists change, is just not borne out by the experience… There is no lack of innovation in local government. What there is, is a lack of resource to follow through on that innovation.”
An immediate moratorium should be put in place on the Trust option and Cabinet should accept the recommendation of the Education Select Committee that Statutory children’s services should remain in local authority control until there is clear evidence that the independent trust model improves outcomes for children and young people. Alternatively we would propose that the Council consider sponsoring an independent commission on the future of social work with children and families in this city as an alternative way forward.
Birmingham Against the Cuts