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Children's Services And The Need For A Defence Of History In The Age Of Innovation

09/12/2016 12:14 GMT | Updated 09/12/2017 10:12 GMT

Legislation concerned with children's development needs the balancing of what we know about the bringing up of children with the best of professional administration and accountability. It has taken decades to develop the statutory duties, the guidance, checks and balances that provide the powers and requirements for professionals and services to deliver the rights and care for each young person. Reading through the legislation and the layering of experience and knowledge it is powerfully obvious; each generation has learned something new and added to the universal safeguarding and wellbeing framework for children and how it should improve into the future.

This depth of the support for young people is something to be valued. Each development has often arisen out of a single unfortunate circumstance, a tragedy that should not have occurred and, by the legislative change, designed not to again. The learning from each circumstance has been applied to be relevant to all young people. Both we and the young people to whom they apply know the entitlements and rights.

Any setting aside of the intensive professional focus of thousands who have contributed to the reasoned rationale of the legislation is worrying. It is an action against our own history.

This is not an abstract conjecture; there is an immediate reason to worry. The Children and Social Work Bill currently being taken through Parliament by this Government would make it possible for local authorities to choose exceptions to meeting some legislative requirements and to experiment with what can be done without it.

There is strong resistance rooted in social work professionalism and evidence. The arguments have concerned the impact of localism on the depth and range of professional services a young person would receive. The Government accept that what they describe as 'innovation' will create radical separations between individual local children's services. The structure of the current national approach to universal entitlement and rights of young people entitled to care would be replaced by each local authority having different interpretations, thresholds and entitlements. Investigating whether local authorities were meeting their universal responsibilities a few years ago in the "Entitlements Enquiry" by the Who Cares Trust (now known as Become) there were already immense variations, lamentable individual aberrations by local authorities. Under the new Bill, however, such variation would become a lauded expectation of each local authority under the exceptions of the Bill.

Reflecting on one's practice is an expected part of contemporary social care. It requires you consider what you do from other perspectives. Varying our practice responses to individual children, in order to do our best for each of them is one thing, but varying the laws and standards under which that practice takes place is another thing entirely.

It is undoubtedly true that there are times when working within the structures and procedures of councils and organisations can become bureaucratic and administration-heavy. That is not what the law requires, however, but rooted in our working cultures. Another way of looking at this is to make sure that we look at when structures can be a helpful support. If we are to blend child care theory with good public administration then what is being described here is experienced parenting - from a corporate parent, but parenting nonetheless - creating a secure emotional base for the child and putting their best interests first. Having clear structures and expectations is enabling of sound child care practice and outcomes. Such structures and routines, the result of learning from experience, keep us all to task by knowing clearly what is to be done. The Bill substitutes this consistency for vicarious contingency

Many are carrying on this argument both inside and outside of Parliament. There is a perspective that has been given little consideration. A major economic barrier is observable in a Government newly published report, 'The potential for developing the capacity and diversity of children's social care services in England'. This report, commissioned in 2014 from Laing Buisson, provides an insight into some important other implications.

What this report shows is that the Bill is a really a series of propositions that even if combined cannot be a structure on which to base a coherent strategy. The outcome would be to make care eternally contingent.

The report concludes that whole-scale marketisation of children's social care is not indicated but, in the view of the authors, 'it is hard to envisage how significant additional capacity and diversity could be created without more services being exposed to market forces'. Yet the report diplomatically states on page 80, 'Suppliers consider that current commissioning practices by children's social care services are not conducive to market development with an over‐emphasis on cumbersome procurement processes and input‐focused contracts that hinder innovation and focus on outcomes.'

The report surfaces and demonstrates the importance given to reputational and commercial risk along with balance sheet weakness for such projects. The remit of the report did not include the risks that may be presented to children and young people. What might be posed by the Government as an 'opportunity' is not necessarily seen in the same light by investors. There might be 'sufficient equity and reserves easily to take on the likely commercial risks' however the 'willingness to do so will depend on the view they take on whether the additional cash flow they acquire is sustainable - since their business model is to acquire businesses, build them and sell on sustainable cash flows.'

Further equivocation is introduced into the decision making, 'success or failure depends largely on the quality of partnership working, organisational culture, and the skills and ability of leaders to champion genuine and trusting relationships... There was a common view that any new architecture must acknowledge the length of time required to achieve agreed outcomes and that there must be a focus on the attainment of long‐term outcomes as true progress is best measured over several years.' It is an opportunity only if there is long term stability and risks are reduced. These are not the terms of the Bill, the motivation is for contingency, and with that always comes risk.

One interviewee for the recent Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) Safeguarding Pressures report commented, there is 'a perfect storm of increased need, expectations and reduced resources.' This includes the 'short-term, unstable temporary funding sources'. These are the very reputational and commercial risks that will deter investors.

There is yet another layer to the reflection needed on the Bill. Another way of looking at the Bill is of an attempt to increase productivity. However inherent in the proposals is a goodly measure of having cake and eating it, as the ideas stand to steadily drive down profitability for any potential investors. Whilst there might be potential investors at the start, the caution of the words in the report, 'since their business model is to acquire businesses, build them and sell on sustainable cash flows', should ring loudly.

This is not the continuation of learning and improving upon child legislation we have known during its history. It is not the blending of child care theory with administration, the experienced corporate parenting creating a secure emotional base for the child. It is the creating of a new marketplace.

There will be expectations of returns on investment. Already being experienced by current outsourced services from social care is a driving down of incomes. The Bill presents Directors of Children's Services with a dilemma; facing dwindling budgets to do things as they are but less, or to adopt this opt out by the Bill in the hope of things being easier. Perhaps short term there might be more available cash to deploy. Look longer the management task becomes bleaker. Fees by the outsourced services would have to rise, lowering profitability makes reducing the investment debt, deleveraging, more difficult.

A major problem for the bill is that, even if firms were relatively confident about future demand they may be reluctant to invest if they believe the returns on capital will be low. We are not in an era where the larger, or children's services sector, economy seems perfectly capable of perpetuating itself. On the contrary, as we see in the series of surveys by the ICHA State of the market, the assets of the provider market can swiftly be severely compromised and service provision jeopardised. Demand for placements in children's homes is outstripping supply but there is not an expansion of the sector. This suggests that the Bill is founded on thin evidence and experience. However one of the emerging capacities of this government is their ability to consider, think Hinckley, and to reconsider, think Brexit planning.

There is still time for the Government to reconsider the professional and financial ramifications, and even more importantly, the ramifications for the children and young people we care for, who need, and have always needed the secure emotional base provided by safe, stable, careful, committed and reflective professional care.