Earlier this year I had the pleasure of joining members of ADCS Council of Reference at the Association's Annual Policy Seminar, discussing our priorities for the coming year. It genuinely was a pleasure, as it always is, because amid all of the challenges facing local authorities - and there are very many - there was a palpable sense of purpose and commitment to doing the best we can for children and their families.
At the same time, there was, perhaps inevitably, a sense that we are facing circumstances that are as demanding as any we have known, with decreasing council budgets and more and more children and families in need of urgent help and support. We must continue to think and act in new ways if we are to support all children as they deserve, but this is becoming increasingly challenging with a £2bn funding gap looming large on the horizon. The most important strategic development will be the introduction of Regional Improvement Alliances.
The Alliances should give some real traction to sector-led improvement, support and challenge work that is already taking place in our regions so that local authorities can more effectively learn from and share existing best practice, and act collectively to avoid failure - to ‘catch local authorities before they fall' - critically, before service standards start to slide. I'm excited by the prospect of local authorities making effective use of national, regional and local information, both ‘hard' and ‘soft', so that we can all support each other better.
Beyond that, my personal list of issues for the coming year includes: how we could work better with both maintained schools and academies, and Regional Schools Commissioners; how we should continue the work of improving educational outcomes for children in our care; how we could move to support children who leave care as well as we support our own birth children; and how we should advocate for a school curriculum that is fit for purpose - a curriculum that properly prepares all children to thrive in the 21st century.
However, all that is to ignore the funding crisis that every single element of public service is facing - children's and adult services, and across other council services; schools and academies, the NHS, police, and all the rest. After years of austerity-driven cuts, whole areas of public service have been hollowed out to provide critical support where it is most needed, at the cost of preventative work, leading to inevitable increases in the demand for crisis services. The funding gap for children's services will be a reality, and the challenges won't be solved by the Treasury shifting the deck-chairs between departments and budget headings. Unless the funding gap is addressed, too many children and families will be left in poverty without the support they should have in a modern affluent society, however creative local authorities are.
John Freeman is chair of the ADCS Associates Group. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website