The report into the failings of Doncaster Children’s Services has been lodged and Michael Gove has announced that he accepts the recommendations to take responsibility for child protection away from Doncaster Council and give it to a new arms-length trust.
There’s a good news article on the story at Community Care here
The report then…to say it is damning is a wincing understatement. You really, really don’t want, when you are on special measures and have been regularly monstered by Ofsted, to have the independent review say things like this :-
“There is little hard evidence showing any improvement in the performance and outcomes of children’s social care services between the publication of the Ofsted Report in November 2012 and the beginning of this Panel’s work in April 2013.”
“But, perhaps more importantly, our judgments, and the recommendations based on them, are derived from the history of Doncaster children’s services. As we have seen, there have been many attempts to tackle the problems within the service, mostly involving changes of senior management similar to those currently under way, all of which have promised much, but have delivered little. If the lack of leadership or appropriate senior management was the problem, then we might expect the difficulties associated with Doncaster children’s services to have already been resolved. But despite numerous new leaders, significant additional resources and the many commitments to improve made by the Council’s decision makers, the problems remain. Fundamentally the problem seems to be one of culture: there is a culture of failure and disillusion that pervades the service and that serves to obstruct every attempt at reform”
I’m not going to comment on whether the review is a fair one or not, I simply don’t know enough either way. Nor do I have any axe to grind, I don’t know anyone at Doncaster to say that they are good or bad. I feel sorry for the individuals working there, and of course the families that are working with the department.
Nor is it abundantly plain to me that simply detaching the service from the control of the Council and giving it a new name will fix these problems. There’s a horrible cycle you can get in when you are at a Council with a bad reputation for child protection – your best social workers leave, the ones you are interviewing for new posts aren’t really that keen on joining up, and the ones who stay can feel ground down and disillusioned. I imagine that Doncaster, for the last few years, hasn’t been a fun place to work, and I would hate people to go away with the depression that its workers are no good. I think there’s far, far more to it than that.
But it is a startling state of affairs that as a result of this report and Michael Gove’s response to it, that child protection services in Doncaster will no longer be run by local government but to an outsourced independent trust, and that this will be for the next ten years – there’s a review after five years to see whether Doncaster Council should get it back (but I can’t see how, given that they will no longer have any managers or staff in the interim, they can demonstrate that they are in better shape in five years then they are now)
I was going to say that it was a unique state of affairs, but I suspect that this may not be the case for that much longer. It is unique today, it may not be a unique solution this time next year. [There’s a very large city in England that has had a spate of child deaths and serious case reviews and has gone through Directors of Children’s Services and poor Ofsted reports, for example]
This is also a clear indication that all of the sabre-rattling about adoptions and councils who don’t hit the Government aspirations about pace of adoption and approval of adopters IS going somewhere. There’s a lot of sabre-rattling, but there’s definitely a sabre in there.
Doncaster was of course famously one of the first Local Authorities to take the view that it was okay to have a Director of Social Services who had never done any social work, or managed a social worker or knew anything about social work, or indeed local government work, or education work, or work involving children. The background in question being managing a frozen food company. That was back in 2004, that person leaving in 2007.
“Management skills are management skills” was the mantra, and a belief that those core transferrable skills of managing were more important than knowing anything about the service that’s being managed.
Perhaps it turns out that this is true when you’re dealing with groceries – there’s not much difference managing Asda and Tescos, but maybe you can’t simply move from frozen Mini-Kievs to Social Workers. In defence of that Director, the report suggests that there hasn’t been a turnaround since various changes in the head of the service.
How is the shift from local government to the trust going to work?
Well, the new service will start in April next year. It won’t be controlled by Doncaster Council, just funded by it, and the Director of Hackney’s social services department will be the “commissioner of Children’s services” for the new trust ( one might think he would already be pretty busy running Hackney).
The start-up costs and funding aren’t clear, and nor is it clear what will happen to all the existing staff and management. Ordinarily, if a Local Authority tendered out its services, TUPE would bite on existing staff and they would either transfer across on protected pay and conditions or be made redundant. You’d need to be an employment lawyer to have any idea what happens when it isn’t a tendering out, but a ripping out of the service by central government. My best guess is that TUPE still bites.
Or indeed what happens to the £1.8 million contract Doncaster Council had just entered into with IMPOWER to provide some key children’s services functions.
What happens if the new trust overspends its budget? Can they come to Doncaster Council and ask for more resources? Who will SET the budget? Will it be set by Gove, with a figure for how much it will alter each year? What happens if/when Gove is not the responsible minister for setting that budget? Or is the budget set by Doncaster Council? And if so, can they make cuts if they are under budgetary pressure elsewhere?
Who is responsible if someone sues for negligence? Does Doncaster’s Monitoring Officer have any sway over the trust? Does the Local Government Ombudsman?
The report suggests that the trust should be owned by its staff. Well, that works brilliantly with a Mini-Chicken-Kiev factory, since the staff can share in the profits that are made; but the trust won’t be making any profits (or will it?) and thus why the hell would anyone working for children’s services in Doncaster through the trust want to part-own it? What’s the up-side for having shares in it?
And on a wider political basis of accountability, how comfortable do we feel with the idea that central government can take control of local services away from a democratically elected local council? This is thrown into even sharper focus when one realises that Michael Gove is obviously true blue Tory and Doncaster Council is firmly Labour.
[Doncaster’s problems with central government over this issue do massively predate the coalition government, to be fair, Labour were giving them a hard time too]
If the people of Doncaster think that that their council is not much cop at running children’s services, isn’t that really a matter for them and their ballot box?
Obviously something had to be done, if Doncaster was under such scrutiny for so many years and independent reviews kept finding the same problems. The Government can’t just keep saying “If you don’t get better, something bad will happen to you” , eventually something bad has to happen. This is the equivalent of “If you don’t look after your toys, I’ll take them off you”
But somebody still has to look after those toys.
[* Yes, I know the Smiths song is “Manchester, so much to answer for” but if you can find a pop culture reference to Doncaster, let me know. “Don-caster spell on you” is a bit tenuous, even for me]