Cameron speech reignites debate over children's services 'market'

Derren Hayes
Monday, September 28, 2015

The Prime Minister highlighted children's social care as ripe for reform in a speech this month, with failing services handed to trusts or other providers to run. Children's services experts give their views on what this means for the years ahead

Family support is one of the areas of children's services that Prime Minister David Cameron wants to outsource to third-party organisations
Family support is one of the areas of children's services that Prime Minister David Cameron wants to outsource to third-party organisations

Prime Minister David Cameron used a speech in Leeds - primarily focused on the drive to deliver more efficiency to public finances - to reinforce the government's desire to break the state's monopoly on delivering children's services by bringing in more third-party providers.

In a 3,500-word speech, Cameron only devoted a few hundred to talking about children's services (see box), but the fact he did it caught the sector by surprise and has reignited the debate about marketisation of children's social care, particularly safeguarding and looked-after children services.

That Cameron referenced his enthusiasm for academies and free schools as well as social impact bonds suggests the government will turn to existing public sector reforms when looking for inspiration over changes to children's services.

More than anything, the speech reinforced the government's desire to pick up the pace of reform in children's services over the next five years, with quicker and more radical intervention being used when struggling councils are unable to turn around their performance.

For Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, the speech indicated the government wants the private sector to play a bigger role in delivering services.

"This is taking us in the same direction as other public services," he says. "As public sector spending is cut, authorities will have to contract on the basis of what they can afford. Outsourcers will be able to afford to provide services at a lower cost and the only way to do that is to cut staffing costs, as that is where much of the overheads are. This will lead to lower quality staff."

He also says that if councils do go down the contract management route in children's social care, there will be less democratic oversight and accountability for services.

"The development of the children's services trusts in Doncaster and Slough are the first moves in taking all accountability and responsibility from councils," he says. "Once you've established you can do that, then the next step is to open it up to the marketplace."

Jones argues that this is already happening with the government's school reforms. He says: "No one has said schools are being taken out of the public sector, as academies are still the responsibility of local authorities.

"But increasingly we're seeing schools being run by large chains of academy trusts that sell a whole range of services to schools. Free schools are clearly a marketplace.

"Schools are losing any sense of being a part of the wider community and are instead in competition."

Children England chief executive Kathy Evans says she is most concerned about Cameron's suggestion that payment-by-results (PbR) funding mechanisms, such as those used in the Troubled Families programme, could be applied to children's services.

"There's something at the heart of this that is suggesting councils can't make the money stretch sufficiently," she explains. "Councils are being told to cut budgets but meet higher demands. We're not being needsled, we're being money-led."

However, she says the approach, if applied to the child protection system, raises difficult questions because the right outcome is dependent on the context of the case and person.

"It is highly likely in any child protection intervention that someone's life is going to be devastated and I can't get my head around the idea of rewarding that through a PbR process," says Evans.

"Are you trying to keep children out of care? If so, that is a troubling blanket approach; it is deeply dangerous.

"That is a fundamental problem of costing it as a service and setting up a contract of service."

Last year, Children England led a campaign against the coalition government's proposals to allow private providers to bid to run child protection services. The proposals were watered down so that no organisation delivering children's services can make a profit.

Evans says the government is still keen to push the role of private providers in the sector, but is sceptical the model can work.

"The idea we need to shake up the system with a market proposition is preposterous. The numbers don't add up. Who is saying there's money in them hills? They aren't out there.

"I'm not saying no one else should get involved, but the idea that you can hand over (child protection) functions like an academy school just doesn't add up."

Amanda Kelly, executive director at public sector improvement company Impower, says she expects children's services to be "broken up" over the next five years and more "multi-agency delivery models" to be in existence. However, she says the government has yet to be "overwhelmed" by private firms expressing an interest in delivering children's social care despite making overtures to the sector.

The problem, she says, is that under a contracting model, different children's social care services would be delivered by a range of providers, raising questions over how you manage the whole system.

"If you give the looked-after children part of the system to a private provider, then there are a lot of things they can't influence," she explains. "You're asking people to contract on inputs and outcomes they can't influence.

"Councils would need to have a strong commissioning function based on intelligence about the local population so that if a lot of children were being taken into care you would need the intelligence to know why it is happening and to ensure it is being done appropriately."

Despite this, Kelly says a range of third-party providers, from large outsourcing firms to small charities, would be interested in getting involved "if the government is willing to have a grown-up conversation on how best to do this".

"The solution isn't just about getting Serco to deliver child protection services. It is about getting councils and their partner agencies to think about how you stop children coming into the system in the first place," she adds.

Enver Solomon, director of evidence at the National Children's Bureau, says he could see independent trusts being developed to run a council's children's services, similar to the government's reforms of the probation service in 2014.

Under these, 35 probation trusts were replaced by 21 community rehabilitation companies that were given greater freedom to bid to provide services under public sector contracts.

"They could be made up of private, public and voluntary sector partners, or it could be one area running another's probation service. It is definitely a model that might pose potential," he says.

But Solomon says it is vital that the agenda is about "joining up services better and not a cost-cutting exercise".

"So far the narrative is about improvement, but it is also important to ask broader questions about how you configure services differently and avoid duplication."

Chris Wright, chief executive of charity Catch22, also agrees that reforms to how children's social care is delivered need to focus on tackling service duplication.

He says: "Many children in the youth justice system are also in the care system; they will have a youth offending team worker, social worker, mental health practitioner. There are a whole range of agencies working with the same children and families."

Unlike Evans, he says adopting the multi-agency delivery model used in the Troubled Families programme could help co-ordinate services better.

"You need relationship continuity and a single point of contact, but currently these services sit separately," Wright explains.

He says any reforms in how services are delivered need to empower local communities "so that they are not always looking to the state for solutions" and have local accountability written into their structures, similar to the way NHS foundation trusts and academies have done.

Wright adds: "We need to explore different delivery models - it is not just about economics, the outcomes are currently appalling. The way we configure some of our services fragments arrangements and pushes children from pillar to post.

"We need consistent relationships that can help them navigate their way through life."

SMARTER STATE: what the Prime minister said

"What energises many markets are new insurgent companies, who break monopolies and bring in new ways of doing things. We should apply this thinking to government. So many of our country's efforts to extend opportunity have been undermined by a sort of tolerance of state failure: children in care and prisons being two absolutely standout areas.

And just as we've replaced failing local authority schools with great new academies and outstanding free schools, so we will say to any local authority failing its children: transform the way you provide services, or those services will be taken over by non-profit trusts or other partnerships. This will be a big area of focus over the next five years.

Another big step forwards has been our pioneering use of interventions such as Social Impact Bonds, which pay private and voluntary sector organisations with some of the savings they deliver to the taxpayer.

I want to take this much further by bringing models like this to scale - in areas such as homelessness, mental health and looked-after children too.

Spending money smartly; saving money overall; improving people's lives - this is what reform can do."

Other public sector reforms that could apply to children's services

Probation service

  • The government has opened up the market to a range of rehabilitation providers from the private, voluntary and social sectors
  • It provides rewards to providers for cutting reoffending rates

NHS foundation trusts

  • They have financial freedoms and can retain financial surpluses to invest in the delivery of new NHS services
  • They have the freedom to tackle problems such as staff shortages and waiting times as they see fit

Academies and schools

  • Academies and free schools receive funding directly from central government, rather than local authorities
  • They are exempt from teaching the national curriculum
  • They have increased control over teachers' pay and conditions, and the length of school days and terms.

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