Shared service savings must not be at children's expense

Ravi Chandiramani
Monday, October 17, 2011

Management of children's services will increasingly be a shared undertaking between local authorities that are striving to make savings, if a survey of council decision-makers is anything to go by.

While some areas might go the whole way and merge entire departments - such as the "tri-borough" pact between Hammersmith, Kensington and Westminster – others look to more modest arrangements. That could mean merging and streamlining back-office functions. Or it could increase the trend where several councils join forces to use their buying power and commission services together. As well as more cross-council collaboration, the survey points to less council delivery: 70 per cent of decision-makers expect 40 per cent of services to be commissioned out.

These are turbulent times. Big changes provide an opportunity to rethink practices and improve services. But many decisions are based on raw price: 90 per cent in the survey said 40 per cent of decisions are cost-led. The reshaping of children's services continues apace. The challenge will be to ensure strong leadership, clarity of accountability and, of course, outcomes for children. That's the real bottom line.

Triumphs in Tower Hamlets

The story of pupil attainment in Tower Hamlets over the past decade is a story of triumph over adversity. The east London borough has the country's highest rates of children in poverty, on free school meals and for whom English is not their first language. But it has defied that triple whammy, with exam results soaring to reach the national average. Inspirational teachers have doubtless played their part. But so has the borough-wide approach to learning in which the local authority has fostered a sense of co-operation between schools, which it is determined to retain with the growth of academies and free schools. There is strong parental engagement, and partnerships with outside organisations aid learning through masterclasses and mentoring. All schools provide extended services. While some problems might persist, the results speak for themselves.

The government has been wise this month to drop plans to absolve schools of a legal duty to work with wider children's services in the Education Bill.

Indeed, what happens outside the school timetable can make all the difference.

Ravi Chandiramani editor, Children & Young People Now

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