Doncaster experiment is sure to yield lessons

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Education Secretary Michael Gove's decision to remove Doncaster Council's powers to provide children's social care is a landmark move.

The reallocation of those duties to a not-for-profit independent trust by April 2014, as recommended by Professor Julian Le Grand's report, will hopefully lead to a transformation in the service and a body of learning for the rest of the country.

Doncaster is a special case. It is notorious for the Edlington brothers who tortured two young boys; its high number of child deaths as a result of abuse and neglect; and a series of inadequate inspection judgments over many years. The Le Grand report identified a "culture of failure and disillusion that pervades the service and that serves to obstruct every attempt at reform".

A revolving door of chief executives and children's services directors, and especially high turnover rates of social workers, has brought constant disruption. It is therefore good that the independent trust has a 10-year contract, at which point control can be returned to the council, and a clear run of five years until that contract is reviewed. However, the establishment of the trust will call into question the ongoing involvement of the council's recently appointed private-sector improvement partner Impower. Doncaster sorely needs strong, stable leadership with people prepared to take decisions that might be painful in the short-term, but right for their long-term vision.

Although education services will become separate, remaining within local authority control, this ought not to be a problem. Integration with children's social care should be aided by the fact that Alan Wood, director of children's services in Hackney, will be Doncaster's "commissioner of children's social care", having helped turn around that borough's education performance in the past decade via another independent set-up, the Hackney Learning Trust. It is not as if links between education and social care have been strong as part of the same council entity.

With Doncaster stripped of control of social care though, who is accountable if it all goes wrong? On this vital question, the report states "appropriate arrangements can be made to ensure these legal responsibilities can be carried out by a new body on behalf of the Secretary of State". Indeed, it calls on the Department for Education to "actively participate in the ongoing improvement plan" and use its influence to lever in help and expertise. It would not be feasible for the department to play such a role in all the services, trusts and, indeed, academies that fall outside the control of local authorities. Ofsted too should keep a close watch - not to ruffle feathers or reprimand as it so often does - but in order to offer support where it can.

The Doncaster experiment is bound to yield lessons that are operational and managerial. Above all though, unless it makes a difference to social workers at the sharp end of child protection and the children and families they serve, it will have achieved nothing.

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