NCAS conference: Children's services leaders debate policy and practice challenges

Neil Puffett
Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Protecting children from extremist ideology, improving care leaver support, reforming child mental health services and changes to Ofsted social care inspections were all issues on the agenda at the NCAS conference this month.

Children's services leaders and elected members attended the National Children and Adult Services (NCAS) conference in Bournemouth this month for three days of debate and discussion about topical policy and practice issues affecting children, young people and families.

Here is what was said at some of the key sessions.

RADICALISATION

A session on radicalisation saw issues around the role of local authorities and the family courts discussed.

Sally Rowe, director of children's services in Luton, said the authority has been training significant numbers of staff to raise awareness around the issue. But she said that councils have to consider how they should work with young people who are living in families with parents involved in extremist activities.

"What is the risk?," she said. "What does it look like, how does it affect those children and young people, and where does the threshold sit with intervention?"

Rowe said the implications of applying for a wardship order or initiating care proceedings have to be thought through in relation to how the arrangements would work in such cases.

"These are not the typical cases we are dealing with every day," she said. "These are not the families that are traditionally on the radar of children's services."

She said councils have to consider how they use the current processes available to them, such as early years services or family support, to work alongside families.

"Just taking children into care isn't the answer here," she said. "We have got to understand risk effectively, and protect our staff. It's not an easy job for them to do and many of our staff are learning as we are."

Gail Hopper, director of children's services in Rochdale, called on the Department for Education to tighten regulatory requirements on unofficial Islamic schools, also known as madrassas.

The government's Counter-Extremism Strategy has since set out that the DfE will develop a new system to intervene in unregulated education settings where there are concerns about the way children are being taught. Hopper said it is "almost impossible" to know where madrassas are operating.

She also raised concerns about the way the courts are dealing with cases of children at risk of radicalisation.

She said High Court judges dealing with cases where families had attempted, or were suspected of planning, to travel to Syria are focused solely on "preventing flight".

"The judiciary is not focused at all on the more nuanced issues and the more sophisticated concerns about what are the messages these children are having growing up and what impact will it have on them? It's (focused on) how do you stop them going. And that really feels like a blunt instrument to me.

"At what point does a different parenting style and different parenting beliefs become a child protection issue?"

CARE LEAVER SUPPORT

A session on support for care leavers saw two young people outline their priorities for government action to two senior DfE civil servants.

Issues included concerns about care leavers being affected by government plans to withdraw housing benefit entitlement for unemployed 18- to 21-year-olds, a lack of versatility in support from personal advisers and the "stigma" faced by young people who are care leavers.

Paul Kissack, director of children's services and strategy at the DfE, said the government has "been clear" that exemptions to the housing benefit entitlement changes will be made for some vulnerable groups, and that discussions are taking place with the Department for Work and Pensions over care leavers.

"I think the DWP actually has quite a good track record of identifying care leavers as a specific group who do need exemptions," he said.

"We'll continue to work with them - but it is policy still in development."

Ann Gross, director of special needs, children in care and adoption at the DfE, said the department is considering improving personal adviser provision, which one care leaver criticised for only being available during office hours.

But Gross said the government is unlikely to dictate a "one-size-fits-all model" because it is important that local offers fit with all of the other things that are going on locally.

In terms of the stigma facing care leavers, Kissack said it is "incumbent" upon the government to think about its messaging. "One of the things we really do need to get better at is celebrating some of the very significant achievements of care leavers," he said.

"We want to see all children and young people leaving care make a successful transition to adulthood in the same way we would expect for our own children."

But he added that there are still too many care leavers being left out.

"Some local authorities are delivering really high-quality care leaver services, but there are local authorities where the level of care leavers not in education, employment or training is significantly lower."

Alison O'Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, reiterated her call for England to follow Scotland's lead by extending the leaving care age to 21, with post care support available to 25.

She said: "I'm becoming even more passionate about feeling that the whole support package for people leaving care needs to be strengthened and really we ought to be heading in the direction that Scotland went earlier and extend the age for which young people who have been in care can expect to receive support."

CHILD MENTAL HEALTH

Two senior officials outlined the progress being made on the government's reforms to children's mental health services six months on from the publication of the Future in Mind report.

Jon Rouse, director general of social care, local government and care partnerships at the Department of Health, said that since the commitment of £1.25bn of additional funding from the government over the next five years, local transformation plans to improve services are being written.

"We will not get this right first time," he said. "Although the plans are being submitted, they will develop, evolve and improve over the next six months and beyond.

"We just want each locality to grasp the level of ambition and the transformational opportunity that this represents."

He added that work is underway to pilot single points of contact in schools so young people have access to mental health advice and support in school - including joint training across child mental health services and schools to raise awareness, identify problems early and highlight potential interventions.

Answering a question from a delegate about lack of transparency over how mental health funding is spent, Rouse said it was a "bugbear" for the department as well.

"Too often, children's mental health is hidden within block contracts, so it is very difficult to extract and really work out what the money is being spent on and to what effect," he said.

"One of the things I would encourage local authorities to do is to use overview and scrutiny functions to ask difficult questions at a local level and demand information.

"Future in Mind says that there should be complete transparency about what investment is being spent on what services in respect of children's mental health.

"If you can't show that, how on earth can you make a judgment about value for money in terms of the outcomes you are achieving for that investment?"

INSPECTION

During a session hosted by Ofsted, the inspectorate set out progress on developing the replacement for the single inspection framework (SIF) once its three-year cycle is complete in November 2016.

Lisa Pascoe, deputy director of social care policy at Ofsted, said that the current thinking is that the replacement for the SIF could be targeted - possibly by theme, an area of interest or a geographical area.

"It's really easy to fall into the child protection arena and just think about that," she said.

"It's really important that we maintain a focus on looked-after children and care leavers.

"Do we need a fuller inspection if we're really worried about an area?

"There is plenty up for grabs."

Pascoe said a working group set up to help Ofsted plan for a SIF replacement has met once so far.

"They said yes to universal inspection, and yes to thinking that the 'front door' is a good barometer of what is happening in local authorities. Interestingly, what was said was that more frequent visits would be supported if they were shorter and focused.

"What people are telling us is that proportionate isn't just about how often you come, it is how long you are there and how many of you there are. People are also telling us self-assessment has an important role to play."

Pascoe said the inspectorate has also been told that an "inadequate" rating can create instability within the children's services department.

However, she said that the working group felt that a narrower inspection could have consequences, because if Ofsted only looks at the "front door" to services, it could lead to people not thinking about what is happening in other areas.

The inspectorate's interim national director for social care, Eleanor Schooling, also told delegates that the new framework must be "very clear" before it starts.

"We are going to be consulting in the spring," she said. "That will then give us plenty of time to work with everybody and make sure we have taken people's comments and thoughts on board.

"So by the time we get to (introducing) it, it will be something that you have had plenty of advance warning about."

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