The news that funding for the Children’s Improvement Board (a partnership between the Association of Directors of Children’s Services [ADCS], the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives [SOLACE], and the Local Government Association [LGA]) has suddenly been withdrawn by the Department for Education [DfE] is something no one was expecting. It has left people confused, angry, and worried that decisions like this are being made without any warning. From twitter I can see that people are also saddened by this news. They are sad that the sector has now lost a significant opportunity to have well coordinated (by a board that was working!) sector-led improvement schemes before being left to coordinate improvement activity between ourselves.
The Children’s Improvement Boards (CIB) function is to lead sector-led improvement in children’s services. They are right at the centre of thinking up new approaches and working closely with councils to test new methods of quality improvement and engage Local Authority peers in that process. To me the CIB were involved in some exciting projects and were capable of bringing around some incredible improvements despite the tough climate for Local Government.
Please forgive my ignorance (I operate very low down the food chain) whilst I try to explain how central government go about identifying authorities they are most concerned about. There is a lot of data sent to central government relating to the performance of children’s services departments. For those who are interested this includes a number of statistical returns (Child in Need Census, Children Looked After [SSDA903], Private Fostering etc). As well as Serious Case Review monitoring there are other returns relating to different service areas such as education. Along with this and information supplied to/by regulators you can begin to build a picture of authorities that are not performing. As we saw at the end of March, local authorities who are deemed to be failing run the risk of having their statutory services forcibly outsourced. So, now is definitely the time for us to start taking action ourselves and working hard to implement strategies locally (with authorities supporting each other) to improve the outcomes for the children and families we work with.
I wasn’t particularly worried about the news relating to having services outsourced because there was a very exciting project being developed by the CIB. This was the Social Work Associate Practice (SWAP) scheme. In short, it was going to be a team of experienced Social Workers tasked with improving local safeguarding services, supporting systematic sharing of good social work practice, increasing skills around peer support, and increasing sector expertise through secondment. In my opinion the SWAP had a real place in helping meet one of the overall 2013-14 aims of the CIB which set out for them to support authorities early in order to reduce the likelihood of government intervention. So the hard work around getting people from closer to the ground to support councils to improve will no doubt be shelved. By all accounts this was going to be their most ambitious project to date, and costing the most money, but it was one that I feel everyone agrees was well worth the money. Not only this, but it also seems that many other truly brilliant projects will also be shelved.
We are definitely seeing a shift in all areas of children’s service governance and performance management. There is rightfully an ever increasing emphasis on outcomes and impact of service delivery and the CIB were central to enabling us to capture this evidence and learn from it. We are seeing continuous changes to inspection frameworks, potential forced outsourcing of statutory services, and now the funding ceasing for the Children’s Improvement Board. I’m not going to go into party politics but this feels like a complete disregard for the expertise already within children’s services and our capacity to lead our own improvements. The DfE suggested that sector-led improvements had to be funded by local departments. This fails to appreciate that in order to learn across the sector there needs to be a board coordinating it and that time is needed in order to embed these approaches into organisational cultures.
I hope others who are involved in, or as committed as I am around service improvement and quality assurance can also see the devastating news this is. We have just lost one of a handful of ‘boards’ that are genuinely doing great work and achieving great things. We must remember that the CIB is a body that not only drives/coordinates/develops improvement activity, but a body that aimed to make practitioners the sector leaders. It is currently unclear whether the CIB has gone with immediate effect or whether this will be phased.