The future of children's services: proactive, predictive and digital

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, March 15, 2016

If children's services are to deliver improved outcomes with declining resources, the sector must embrace technology, joint working and volunteers, says Pillars and Foundations, a radical paper from the ADCS.

A new paper on the future of children’s services pulls no punches in outlining the challenges faced by the sector. Described as a “think piece designed to stimulate, challenge and debate”, it sets out some of the tough measures children’s leaders need to consider if children’s services departments are to keep pace with demand and deliver good outcomes in spite of shrinking budgets.

The paper, Pillars and Foundations: Next practice in children’s services, says reductions in public sector spending have, to date, too often led to bigger caseloads, higher thresholds, cost shunting and salami-slicing of budgets, all of which tend to harm outcomes for children and families. However, it argues that a more intelligent response to austerity can “drive innovation and positive change in services”.

The paper – written by Richard Selwyn, a local authority assistant director for commissioning, and member of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ resources and sustainability policy committee – argues that by embracing technology and reallocating resources, a “brighter horizon” for children’s services is possible.

Outlined below are the ideas put forward in Pillars and Foundations for effective practice, and examples it cites where these are already being delivered.

Demand management

Pillars and Foundations focuses on how early help can reduce demand for services. However, it starts from the premise that the current model of early help is broken. It states: “Every time we intervene early we are making an assumption that the individual will require more expensive services in the future, but this can be untrue and their needs may instead be met by their family or community.”

The way to address this is through better prediction of risk, and finding ways to provide help for all children and families that have a need. This would mean early help services becoming more proactive rather than reactive, and reaching out to support families, says Selwyn.

“If we change to a proactive service model then there will be a big increase in the number of families we help, but of course there will need to be a reduction in the cost per intervention. That’s where ‘next practice’ shows we need new types of intervention, probably through community volunteering, and universal or digital services.”

Community resilience

Another measure to reduce demand is to improve the resilience of individuals and communities to deal with problems without the need for intervention; and where help is needed this is delivered in partnership with family and community, known as co-production.

Robust models that deliver savings for authorities are hard to come by, admits Selwyn, but he adds that finding ways for families and communities to play a role in providing their own solutions to problems encourages people to take ownership of them.

“It sometimes feels like we are imposing interventions on families and communities – you don’t get good outcomes or commitment from people if you do that,” says Selwyn.

Using volunteers

The need to deliver “more with less” will make recruitment of both formal and informal volunteers an imperative for local agencies, the paper says. Recruitment, training and supervision of formal volunteers costs between £5 and £10 of face-to-face time with families, 20-times less than the cost of a social worker. It states these two “workforces” have different strengths, and that in some instances “a volunteer might achieve better outcomes through a strong and sustained relationship with a family”.

In future, practice in children’s services will see a blend of the volunteer and professional workforce. “We’ve got an opportunity to think differently about volunteering,” says Selwyn. “Traditional models are bureaucratic because they put blockers in the way of people volunteering, in terms of training, too many checks, and requiring volunteers to commit to large blocks of time.”

Volunteering could include peer support, online forums and micro-volunteering (small amounts of time), adds Selwyn. Volunteers could work in Troubled Families teams, support families “stepping down” from social work contact, and mentor looked-after children and care leavers, he says.

Universal services

With the number and capacity of frontline children’s social care staff set to reduce, attention will shift to how universal services take on more responsibility for early help. Staff in schools, general practice, nurseries, pharmacies and fire services “will be expected to reach beyond their comfort zone to deal with users’ issues at the point of identification rather than referring to more expensive statutory services”, the paper explains.

Local authorities will be expected to encourage, support and instil confidence in the universal services workforce “so that they can move into this more impactful role”. This could involve changing referral thresholds, establishing telephone and online support, and setting up specialist teams in universal settings. “When you look at the volume of need for mental health, the only solution is that universal staff can do more. Our role is to help them get better at doing that,” says Selwyn.

He  says that by forging closer links with education, health and childcare settings, children’s services can help them to recognise the impact that meeting a child’s wider needs can have on their own organisation’s goals. For example, without emotional wellbeing a child will struggle to achieve at school. “If you help a school support that child you’re also helping them improve their school attainment levels,” says Selwyn.

Digital help

At a time when so many children and young people prefer to engage online, children’s services have been slow to adopt digital technology to interact with them, the paper states.

It argues that as we get better at predicting children’s needs, the volume of early help support will increase, so there will be an “inevitable” need to supplement face-to-face interaction with online support as the only affordable option.

Selwyn says children’s services currently put information online but often fail to signpost people to it well enough. “We expect people to find digital help – but we can probably improve how we push information and online services,” he adds.

“It is about being more proactive and using information to support people, and that is underpinned by understanding individuals’ needs better,” he adds.

Services most likely to shift online include triage of need through online assessment; advice about speech and language therapy; online counselling via social media; care plans owned by the user and shared with services online and peer support forums.

Improved use of technology to deliver services and offer early help could also reduce the lengthy waiting times for some children’s services, such as speech and language therapy, Selwyn explains.

Commissioning services

Commissioning of children’s services has undergone much change recently, but the paper says more can be done. Future practice in children’s services will be based on proactive engagement rather than waiting for problems to become severe enough to intervene. Predictive modelling of need will identify families to help and show which interventions have the best outcomes.

“Commissioning…enables us to ask the right questions, stretch the boundaries of service design, and to consider a combination of economic, technical and psychological solutions to challenges,” the report states.
Despite concern over the role of the private sector in delivering children’s social care services, Selwyn says that getting the best outcomes from the available resources is what should drive decision making.
“This isn’t ideological, it may be that there is an internal or external organisation best placed to deliver services, or perhaps a family can deliver interventions themselves,” he says.

Integrated system

There needs to be a broader view of integration, the paper says.

In addition to organisations’ management and back office functions, integration could also see children’s services departments joining up with those from other councils, as has happened in the Tri-borough authorities and Kingston and Richmond in London.

Selwyn explains that greater integration would allow services from different parts of the care system to work collaboratively on the common goal of reducing demand on specialist services by moving resource to early help.

He adds that regional devolution, while largely untapped in terms of children’s services, offers opportunities for commissioners to work closer together.  “It could improve data sharing and use of public buildings,” he says. “It could also mean the skills development of the workforce is more aligned to what is needed locally.”

East Riding Shift to early help reduces dependence on care

East Riding of Yorkshire Council has shifted resources from safeguarding to early years services to fund intensive support for families with children aged nine and under who are vulnerable but do not meet the thresholds for statutory intervention.

Care proceedings for children aged under two fell from 95 in 2012 to 45 in 2014, while the number of looked-after children under four dropped from 92 to 33 from 2013 to 2015.  

Suffolk Families are encouraged to seek own solutions

Signs of Safety is a way of working that encourages social workers to help families where children are at risk to identify their strengths and support networks and find their own solutions to problems.

Outcomes are agreed in collaboration with the family, and focus on the changes they need to make using support from extended family, friends and voluntary groups.  Evaluation of Signs of Safety by University College Suffolk show practitioners feel supported by the way of working, while families are more engaged and better understand why services have got involved in their lives and what they need to do to change.

Surrey Tackling the root causes of youth offending

In 2012, Surrey Council disbanded its youth offending team and incorporated the functions into wider youth services because many young offenders had unmet needs similar to other vulnerable children. The approach required major investment in staff training and ensuring expert help was available if needed.

Surrey now has the lowest number of first time entrants to the youth justice system, the lowest number of jobless young people in England, and has cut youth homelessness. 

North Yorkshire Multi-agency help for adolescents

As part of its No Wrong Door programme, North Yorkshire council has brought together NHS, police and housing services into two area hubs to provide round-the-clock support to families where adolescents are on the edge of care to resolve issues without the need for proceedings. Each child, whether in or outside the care system, is allocated a key worker to ensure their needs are properly met.

Through closer working between different agencies, the project has seen the creation of a wider range of accommodation options for young people who can no longer stay with their family, including supported lodgings, community families and bespoke placements.

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