Analysis: Children's trusts get a reality check

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Audit Commission last week attacked the current state of children's trusts, prompting serious questions about what the future holds. Lauren Higgs investigates.

Berated by the Audit Commission and exposed to public scrutiny, it's been a tough week for children's trusts. Accused of failing to improve outcomes for children and young people five years on from the death of Victoria Climbie, the very purpose of children's trusts has been called into question.

The sector's response to the contentious report, Are we there yet?, has been defensive. Children's minister Beverley Hughes attacked the watchdog for publicising findings that are almost a year old and Les Lawrence, chair of the Local Government Association (LGA) Children and Young People Board, claimed the report passes judgement prematurely, given many children's trusts have only been running for six months.

But although representatives from central and local government have questioned elements of the Audit Commission report, few have denied that children's trusts face significant challenges.

So will revised government guidance and measures to reinforce cooperation smooth the road for children's trusts?

Maggie Atkinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), believes several of the report's suggestions make sense. She supports using the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes to share children's trust best practice and says trusts do need to focus more on commissioning.

She is hopeful that new legislation will improve engagement with key partners, including schools. "The role of schools in the children's trust at an operational level must be better defined," she concedes.

Engaging with partners

Caroline Abrahams, programme director for children and young people at the LGA, also highlights commissioning as a key concern for children's trusts.

But more importantly, she adds, frontline staff must translate decisions from senior figures in children's trusts into reality on the ground.

Jan Leightly, director of children's services at children's charity Action for Children, believes the voluntary and community sector is best placed to do just that. She denies that the third sector have been more difficult to engage than other trust partners and says the key to getting buy-in from charities is consulting them properly on what they can offer. "It is a challenge to involve the voluntary sector because it is so diverse, but the sector is well placed to deal with issues that affect the most vulnerable children," she says.

But the onus is not only on the voluntary sector to develop their role in children's trusts. Schools are another key partner highlighted by the watchdog as insufficiently engaged.

The government has also recognised this issue and a spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) says there is "overwhelming support" for plans to extend the duty to cooperate in trusts to schools.

Ben Thomas, national officer for education and children's services at Unison, says engagement with schools in children's trusts is "bound to be a mixed picture", due to the sheer number of schools. He says there are local authorities that engage schools successfully but claims, as the report does, that confused government guidance has slowed progress.

Despite this, he is hopeful legislation holds the key to children's trust relationships. "Extended services have fostered better integrated working in schools so things can only get better," he says.

The DCSF plans to publish revised guidance for children's trusts on 18 November. Legislative changes are imminent too, with children's trust boards likely to become a legal requirement and schools liable to become statutory partners.

Whether these changes will drive improvements remains to be seen. It is perhaps too early to answer the question, are we there yet? The true test depends on the next, not the past, five years.

TIMELINE - THE EVOLUTION OF CHILDREN'S TRUSTS

April 2001 - The government announces a public inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, headed by Lord Laming

July 2003 - Children's minister Margaret Hodge unveils 35 children's trust pathfinders to test the feasibility of integrated working

September 2003 - Every Child Matters green paper is published

March 2004 - Education and Skills Secretary Charles Clarke announces children's trusts to be adopted nationwide as part of The Children's Bill

March 2006 - Children's minister Beverley Hughes and care services minister Liam Byrne launch a guide to joint planning and commissioning for children's trusts

April 2008 - Deadline for all local authorities to operate children's trusts arrangements

July 2008 - Children's Secretary Ed Balls announces government plans to strengthen children's trusts

October 2008 - Audit Commission report: Are we there yet? says children's trusts are plagued by confusion.