Built to last? By Paul Gosling

12 Oct 06
Delegates to next week's annual social services conference are still reeling from the last round of organisational shake-ups. Now there is more change on the way, with a new children's green paper and a local government white paper to come. Paul Gosling takes stock

13 October 2006

Delegates to next week's annual social services conference are still reeling from the last round of organisational shake-ups. Now there is more change on the way, with a new children's green paper and a local government white paper to come. Paul Gosling takes stock

In the old days, it was the conference of the Association of Directors of Social Services. Now delegates are getting ready for the National Children and Adult Services Conference next week. How times change – even the ADSS name is on its way out.

New names reflect new realities – and uncertainties. Gone are the old local authority social services departments, as adults' and children's services have been split. To cap it all, the children in care green paper came out this week and is to be followed shortly by the white paper on local government. If the conference delegates in Brighton dream of more constancy and less reform it would be no surprise.

The green paper proposes greatly strengthening support for children in care, who will be given new rights, with clarity over what they can expect from a council. There are also measures to improve the quality of their education. The most radical proposal is to give them individual care budgets. However, the paper stops short of proposals to outsource support for children where councils perform poorly, as some commentators are predicting.

These latest proposals come as local authorities are still adjusting to the changes from the 2004 Children Act – namely the requirement to appoint both a director of children's services and a matching lead member – and from the government's Every Child Matters initiative. This was largely a response to Lord Laming's inquiry into the torture and murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, which found that statutory bodies had failed to work together or share information in ways that would have protected her. Severe problems that fell across and between the responsibilities of different departments were not handled adequately.

The findings sparked a structural reorganisation of social services, typically splitting them into children's services, including social care and schooling, and adults' services, in which adult social care might be brought together with adult learning, culture and sports.

Children's services authorities now have an explicit duty to work with other public bodies and partnerships to protect children. But there is widespread scepticism among practitioners and academics about whether such a neat solution is any solution at all.

In the words of Jon Glasby, lecturer at Birmingham University's Health Services Management Centre: 'One person's integration is another's fragmentation. However you organise services, you need to create boundaries.'

Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser to the Improvement and Development Agency on children, adults and mental health, warns: 'There are concerns that the two services [adults' and children's social care] are going their own way and there is competition for scarce resources, plus a large proportion of the budgets is going straight to schools, with adults' services facing a double squeeze of lower grant and NHS deficits.'

Cozens, a former director of social services at Leicester City Council, believes that it is too soon to consider the impact of the separation of the services. 'Councils are still at the stage of developing new structures and roles,' he says.

With the local government white paper soon to be published, there is now the spectre of possible further restructuring. Speculation on the paper's contents has led to debate on the future of adults' services becoming caught up with the future of local government itself.

This perception was clearly articulated at the last of the IDA's regional events for social services directors and lead members in Liverpool. 'If adult services continues to be about matching particular people to particular services, then it's under pressure,' explains Cozens. 'But if the white paper is about building communities and developing preventative services, then they potentially become much more significant. The service will develop a strong focus around what it feels like to live in a particular place.'

In any case, Cozens points out, some local authorities have kept both services in the same department, complying with the Children's Act by employing a director of children's services. Other authorities have improved the flow of information and service planning by ensuring their director of adults' services sits on children's trusts. Yet others have shared responsibilities across directors and departments.

Julie Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, says that 'constructing coherent linkages between adults' and children's services will be vitally important, as the two new departments begin to establish their identities'.

She adds: 'There are important, crossover areas, like domestic violence, substance abuse and truancy, where the problems within a family need to be seen as part of a complicated whole. Authorities are building systems and processes locally to enable them to cope effectively with the multi-faceted and complex needs that arise within families and communities.'

Jones' own authority, Westminster City Council, is one of those that has retained a structural link between adults' and children's services, through its Children and Community Services department. This brings together schools, lifelong learning and housing, as well as children's and adults' social care. But in many more authorities, there is a structural division between social care for adults and children, creating the risk of new isolated silos. The question is whether authorities will be effective at spreading knowledge and experience across the boundary edges.

Slough Borough Council believes the answer is yes. Dawn Warwick, director of children and education and strategic director of community and cultural services, says that Slough has not had any problems ensuring a good flow of information between the newly separated adults' and children's services. 'Being a small unitary, our information systems are tight and our staff work closely,' she explains. 'We used the Climbié action plan on children to stress that children's protection is everyone's responsibility across the council. Part of the induction process of all new staff is a briefing on children's issues.'

She adds that neither of the services have been marginalised by the reorganisation. Instead, she welcomes the opportunity for working across old silo divisions, to promote the health of elderly people, for example.

Like Westminster, Wakefield Metropolitan District Council has kept adults' and children's services together and combined them with education. Department head Elaine McHale, corporate director of family services, says: 'I am in this unique position of having education and all social services under one remit. But you still have challenges regarding communication and focus. We are trying to develop a focus on “thinking family” and trying to avoid silos. But this is still very new for us.'

McHale says that there have already been unexpected gains. One is that provision of adult learning for parents has made their children more aware of the benefits of a good school education. Another is a strong cut-across of best practice between adult and child protection. 'These are areas we would not have seen as silos,' she says. 'A “family approach” is about making sure everyone is given opportunities, as well as doing safety work. You have to see the whole family background.'

But Pam Baldwin, a policy officer for the Local Government Information Unit's Children's Services Network, says that there is a contradiction between the government's aspirations for supporting children to emerge physically and emotionally healthy from troubled family backgrounds and the reality of its division of social services. She believes that the prime minister's September speech on social exclusion and the related Cabinet Office action plan shows that the government has recognised this.

'My view is that, yes, there is a tension in government policy, which it probably hadn't thought through too carefully at the outset,' she suggests. 'But you shouldn't get too hung up on organisational silos – you should work in partnerships. Professionals in the field will continue to look at families in the round.'

Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social Workers, is worried that the new structures will let down vulnerable children. 'There is always a problem that when you split services you fail to integrate them,' he says. 'This is particularly obvious for children with special needs, as they move into adulthood.'

And he is not convinced that teachers will respond adequately to their 'protection of children' role. 'It's now less clear whose responsibility it is than it was formerly, with teachers saying they don't have time to deal with child protection.'

One result of this, he argues, will be greater confusion over the role and responsibilities of social workers. 'I think we need to look very carefully at [school] exclusions. Quite often there will be poor relations between some families and schools, and these are the families we need to find better ways of helping,' he says. 'The tendency still is that schools will put up with things for as long as they can, and then refer it to a social worker,' with an assumption that problems that have festered for a long time will suddenly be resolved.

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Professor Steve Trevillion, director of the School of Social Work at Leicester University and former head of social work education at the General Social Care Council, believes that despite the challenges of silos, genuine cross-discipline working offers great benefits, such as engaging schools. 'Where it hits problems is exactly where it goes across the new structures, such as mental ill health and drug and alcohol abuse,' he concedes. 'These affect both adults and children and you need people and resources that cut across the structures.' An additional concern, he suggests, is that a broad understanding of family problems is undermined by the trend for separate staff training for adults' and children's services.

Birmingham University's Glasby recalls from his own experience as a social worker that adults' and children's services were often not good at liaison and joint planning, even within single social services directorates.

But reorganisations are not a solution to these problems and usually create new difficulties, he says. They disrupt an organisation for typically 18 months, distract executives from policy objectives, damage morale and create a loss of collective memory as staff leave. Social care reorganisation carries further risks if it ends up marginalised in large departments.

'Social care nationally is very fragile at the moment and it's not clear where it fits,' says Glasby. 'It has a crisis of confidence. The alternative view is that this is a real opportunity for it to be clear about what it's trying to do and its values. If it does this well, then there is a real chance of mainstreaming its values and services. So there is a threat and an opportunity.'

But, he urges, politicians should not look to further restructuring to resolve the problems of the last rejigging. 'We have always looked for a magic structure, but we have never found it – and that's because there isn't one,' says Glasby. 'The tendency is always to think that it will be found in just one more reorganisation.'

The National Children and Adult Services Conference is taking place in Brighton on October 18–20


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