In July 2019, Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council, replaced her fellow Labour councillor Anntoinette Bramble as chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board. Blake, who has been a councillor since 1996, became the first female leader of Leeds City Council in 2015 after five years as executive member for children. Before politics, she worked in education and social policy, including teaching English to refugees.
Leeds has achieved excellent results in improving outcomes for children in recent years. Do you hope to bring that learning to the role?
We have developed a first class reputation for children’s social care in Leeds. When Labour came back into minority control of the council in 2010 we inherited an “inadequate” rated service. By 2015, we’d improved to “good” and by 2018 had gone to “outstanding” across the board.
I have a real passion for this area. Children’s services need to be at the heart of what a council does. Everyone has a role to play in that.
What key changes did you make in Leeds?
We invested heavily in early intervention by adopting an outcomes-based approach. We wanted to safely reduce the numbers of children coming into care and introduced family group conferencing to tackle problems earlier.
We also took the decision to keep all our children’s centres open in a difficult financial environment. I believe children’s centres are important because people can go to a non-threatening setting without feeling like they are being identified as having particular issues.
We look at how we can support the whole family through having a wide range of practitioners available at centres. For example, our Henry childhood obesity service has been effective at identifying children with eating issues linked to self-esteem problems.
Parents tell us the skills they learn at centres they are able to apply to other areas of behaviour with their children.
With nine out of 10 children’s services budgets being overspent, how realistic is it for the Leeds’ invest-to-save approach being rolled out more widely?
The rise in the numbers of children in care and heightened public attention on risk has come together to present enormous difficulties for local authorities.
In Leeds we had the political leadership to carry on investing in our most vulnerable people. Investing in early intervention not only delivered better outcomes for children, it saved us large sums of money that we could invest in more early help programmes and services.
The adult and children’s social care budget combined now accounts for 60 per cent of the total spending. If things don’t change in the next few months the pressure on budgets means very difficult decisions will need to be made.
Is it just lack of resources that is holding back good practice in some areas?
We need a dedicated early intervention fund to invest in early help nationally, but we also need an open approach to working in partnership. If agencies are left to their own devices then they can become risk averse which doesn’t always achieve the best outcomes for children.
I believe we have the answers to some of the problems that we are currently unable to address. We can demonstrate we know what good practice looks like, but we need the freedoms to create the partnerships locally to deliver the best outcomes.
All colleagues in local government need to have an open door to ministers to explain how difficult it is to do the routine practice and how much more we could do if given the resources.
In addition to more funding, what other priorities does the board have to lobby government over?
There’s been a massive increase in the number of education health and care plans [for children with special educational needs and disabilities], which has seen a huge shift in high needs block spending.
There needs to be a recognition that whatever the governance model of a school, the director of children’s services must have access to it through their statutory function to safeguard the wellbeing of all children.
In Leeds, we have created clusters of education partners, so they can come together to address the particular needs of children. We ask schools to contribute to the running of the clusters, but some of our academy chains have not invested in them. Some of our social workers hear about problems with children at schools not in clusters but their ability to address this is hampered by not being involved in the day-to-day conversations.
Despite a mixed political makeup, the board has been united in its calls to government for more resources. What do you put its strength down to?
There has been a real strength on the board of representatives from different types of authorities coming together – I’m from a large metropolitan authority, while others are from district and county councils.
It’s very striking over the last few years that too many children and families have been let down.
Being chair is a great opportunity to get an understanding of what’s happening on the ground. It’s refreshing that all the board members can contribute and share things as all of us have an enormous amount to learn still – however much progress you think you’ve made you need to be vigilant.
Judith Blake CV
- 2019 – Chair of the LGA children and young people board
- 2017 – Awarded a CBE
- 2015 – Leader of Leeds City Council
- 2010 – Executive member for children and families
- 1996 – Elected member of Leeds City Council
- 1980s – Roles in education and social policy