Doubts over future of DfE's £20m social care research centre

The future of a delayed initiative to improve the quality of children's social care is in doubt, as there is no guarantee of ongoing government funding, documents reveal.

Plans for a What Works Centre for Children's Social Care, backed with funding of up to £20m, were first announced in January 2016. It had been due to open later that year, but is still in the process of being set up and is not expected to officially launched until 2020.

Documents seen by CYP Now reveal that the venture is "laden with risk", only has funding until March 2020, and there is "no guarantee of ongoing funding" beyond that.

The centre is currently being established by a development team, led by innovation charity Nesta, which has been given £5m of set-up funding from the Department for Education, and is responsible for recruiting its founding leaders. The DfE has also commissioned a "research partner" for the centre, led by Cardiff University, which has been given a further £5m of funding.

Details of challenges the centre faces feature in a briefing note for prospective chairs of the organisation.

"The development team and research partner contracts run until March 2020, after which there is no guarantee of ongoing funding for the centre," the candidate brief states.

"A key role for the new chair will be to negotiate with government and other potential funders over the next two years around the case for the centre continuing its work beyond March 2020, and around the best financial and organisational models for doing so."

A total of 10 What Works Centres have already been established spanning education, early intervention, crime reduction, local economic growth, health and social care, and wellbeing and ageing.

The document states that the difference between the social care centre's possible futures is "huge".

"The centre has the potential to play a key role in transforming social work in the UK and the lives of those who benefit from it," the document states.

"It could also set a template for reform of other key public services facing similar challenges. ?

"However, the centre does not exist yet, and the project to build it into a success is laden with risk.

"Further, it is not clear what the centre will need to do, and become, to bring about the impactful future. There is no clear template for a What Works project which, if followed, offers a good chance of success.

"Many What Works Centres are making good progress, but all would identify continuing challenges in their work, and there is not a blueprint for success that can be replicated for new centres in new sectors."

The briefing note adds that: "If the centre is successful in its mission then the simple question, ‘what works', will be generating answers which are used by practitioners to make better decisions, and by practice leaders to design better systems, all across England.

"The 700,000 children a year who are supported by social workers and their colleagues will be living better lives as a result."

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