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Creative thinking to take children’s services forward: interview with Alan Wood

Source: Public Sector Executive Oct/Nov 2014

Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, gives his thoughts on how local authorities can attempt to safeguard child social care in the future. David Stevenson reports.

Without creativity and imagination in the delivery of children’s social services, councils will face a stark choice: cutting ‘preventative’ services, or cutting yet more money from elsewhere in their already squeezed budgets.

This is according to Alan Wood, president at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), who told PSE that safeguarding children’s social services will likely consist of a combination of what “councils have done thus far to protect the core child protection services”, while also seeing what protection they can get through “thinking differently about how the services are provided”.

However, he conceded that there isn’t much room for manoeuvre in many local authorities on what remains a very difficult issue.

Good governance and organisation

Wood, who is also the corporate director of Children and Young People’s Services in the London Borough of Hackney, isn’t a believer that just spending money will generate the best results in children’s social care services, especially where failings have happened in the past.

“I don’t think it is that straightforward. You can see this in some areas that are not doing very well,” he said. “One of the things [inspectors] have found is that the dysfunctionality or disorganisation of those services tends to bring with it inefficiencies. People have tried to resolve problems by perhaps throwing more money at it, and appointing people to posts, but not really thinking through what the core problems are causing the difficulty.”

Organisations with weak management need to address it urgently. Leaving ineffective managers in charge of social work can be a costly mistake, for the local authority and for children.

Back in 2013, Wood (pictured, right) was asked by Michael Gove, then the secretary of state for education, to review the arrangements for children’s social care in Doncaster.

He told PSE that one component of driving forward changes is strong governance. But over the last decade, there has been a weakening of the role of director of children’s services.

“Originally, the construct was very clear for a director: this is where the buck stopped. As the director of children’s services, you were the person who had the statutory responsibility for services. And, although you didn’t manage them, the duty on those in health, probation and in the police to partner and co-operate with the director indicated that you had strong central governance,” said Wood.

“I think what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is a weakening of that by the creation of new bodies and the creation of new posts in regional and central government.

“For instance, we’ve ended up having a director of children’s services, then a regional school commission, an Ofsted inspector for schools, then the independent chair of the local safeguarding boards, then the principal social worker for each authority. I think, in a way, the response to the various challenges has created additional structures and additional governance arrangements, which can cloud over the clear centrality of having a director of children’s social services where the buck stops.”

New thinking

Unprecedented budget cuts have prompted some local authorities to protect child protection services by reducing funding for other preventative services. But any more of that “will potentially push very hard on the system and lead to more referrals, which will clog up the system,” Wood noted. “The real challenge is that you can’t compartmentalise part of the current budget and say ‘oh, yes, that’s for child protection’.”

That’s because the level of funding and support for schools, early intervention, youth work has a major knock-on effect on the amount of pressure on the child protection services – “both in theory and in practice”.

“This is because there is nowhere to go, things get worse and, therefore, references get put through the system.”

Some councils are trying to make their child protection services more efficient, by giving more decision making responsibilities directly to social workers in units and teams. In other areas, councils are looking at streamlining the management around decision making and taking out some of the support services by supporting social workers with more advanced equipment, and looking at ways to reduce the administrative burden through contemporaneous reporting.

“So there is some very creative thinking going on,” Wood said. “The next line of protection comes in controlling the number of people who come into the system, and one way that is likely to happen is by making it a higher bar for children to get through the system.

“We’re probably at the point where there’s not a lot more that can be done without altering thresholds. But doing that will lead to problems, because it will create more pressure on what we call the ‘universal’ services – schools, nurseries etc.”

Wood stated that cross-departmental work in this area isn’t anything ‘majorly’ new, but of late there has been a move towards having a social work approach for families rather than social work for children and social work for adults.

Some are wondering whether having a director for both services means councils don’t get the most use out of their social care workforces, he told us. “Some people are asking how you can take more of a family approach.”

ADCS support

While local authorities have to make financially tough decisions that will ultimately affect children’s social care services, Wood stated that the ADCS offers support in three main ways.

“The first is we have a collection of what’s going on in the system in terms of referrals,” he said, “so we look at the pressures coming into the system, and we present that nationally and to the Department for Education.”

He added that this allows ADCS to “temperature take” and let people see what is happening in their authorities compared with others.

Secondly, the ADCS highlights innovative ways of working. “For example, we have authorities that buddy each other and share expertise, hold conferences and seminars to see how they’re doing things differently,” said Wood. “That’s part of what ADCS promotes through its conferences and regional policy committees.”

The third area is the work that ADCS does with the virtual staff college, its leadership development agency. This allows ADCS to ensure that directors and decision makers at assistant director level are exposed to academic thinking and forecasts about the future spend of local authorities.

“Through those three things we’re trying to do our bit – trying to get the sector feeling confident and supported in dealing with the tough issues,” he said. “But, of course, local authorities are all different. They all have different levels of political control, are funded in different ways and even the organisation of children’s services departments is very, very different. It is not consistent.”

Wood also highlighted that a good proportion of directors of children’s services, 40 to 50%, are now also directors of adult services – so their portfolios are much bigger than they once were.

“Some would argue that dilutes the roles of both the director of adult social services and the director of children’s services; others would argue it means they can get a better strategic view across both arms of social care,” he said.

Wood, who is also the commissioner for children’s social care in Doncaster, added that there seems to be a trend towards having directors with larger portfolios – both for children and adult social care.

“But where there is a situation where there is a lot of focus on the quality of child protection services – and you have your Rotherhams and Rochdales – if you’ve got directors of children’s services with very wide portfolios, some people will ask the question: can they seriously have their fingers on the pulse across such a wide-ranging portfolio?”

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