Children's services are high profile and high risk, supporting some of the most vulnerable children and young people. Making a reality of self-improvement is an acid test of local government's ability to lead high-quality services and tackle challenges head on. There is a great deal to gain from making self-improvement work in this area – better outcomes for children and young people, more effective and lasting improvement in services, more relevant and flexible performance data, less regulation and inspection.
The Children's Improvement Board (CIB) is leading a key element of local government's push for greater self improvement and self regulation. The CIB is a partnership between the LGA, the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), supported by funding from the Department for Education (DfE).
The Board employs a Director for Children's Services Self Improvement and a small delivery team.
CIB is working with councils to achieve three key aims:
It is CIB's ambition that over a three or four year period the sector:
There are currently six elements within the approach. They are intended to complement a number of elements that are already present within the LGA's Taking the Lead programme.
The elements are:
At the heart of CIB's aspiration for self-improvement is the principle that councils should support and challenge each other. Every council is being asked to open up their normal processes of self-assessment and review to challenge by other councils and, in turn, to donate time to provide challenge to others. It is important that we build a system that is sustainable for the future and that we work for a culture where councils are willing to share both their successes and challenges with their peers.
Every region is being asked to develop a programme of peer challenge for children's services that involves all councils. There is no prescribed model for this work and we will need to review and learn from experience. Approaches vary and include pairing individual councils to challenge each other, forming challenge clusters and using a panel of directors of children's services to provide challenge.
The focus of the challenge is currently being determined by the councils involved but ideally should include an overview of all aspects of performance in children's services. At present peer challengers are mainly directors of children's services and their staff. However, it is vital that this work is seen as part of the overall corporate arrangements for performance management, that members and chief executives retain oversight and participate in ways that suit the local context and that the role of peer challenge is open to members and chief executives.
The development of peer challenge is supported by funding from CIB devolved to each region. Regions are using these funds to manage the local programmes of work and to secure training and development for peer challengers. Nationally CIB will collate evidence of impact and provide any core tools and protocols that the sector considers to be helpful.
Note: LGA continues to provide a corporate peer challenge service that is different to the children's specific peer challenge described above. All councils are entitled to a free corporate peer challenge every three years.
In response to feedback from the sector about the need for an additional focus on the most inspected and high risk areas of children's services, CIB is making an offer to all councils of a children's safeguarding peer review. This offer builds on LGA's 'corporate peer challenge' methodology and is also free of charge every three years. The exact focus for the review is discussed with the local authority but there is an established model that includes a five day visit to the council and a review team that includes officers, elected members and reviewers from other public sector or voluntary sector organisations.
CIB is working to develop a common data set for children's services to be available to all councils. This draws on data that is already available. It does not claim to be comprehensive or to be the only source of information or intelligence about performance; it provides a common set of key data that councils can use as a way of understanding their own performance, in comparison to statistical neighbours, and can form one of the starting points for peer challenge. The intention is that councils will be able to supplement this core data with locally determined performance information.
The profiles are under development but the plan is for them to be part of LG Inform and to be used in the context of the overall 'Taking the Lead' commitment to intelligence-led self-improvement.
Making a success of self improvement depends on the ability of councils to identify potential problems, before they become serious, and a willingness to acknowledge their difficulties and ask for help. Through regions, councils are being asked to develop their understanding of performance issues in their region, to be more confident they can identify potential risks and to have a mechanism for facilitating 'early support' where this is needed. It is vital that councils themselves get better at understanding what factors might lead a council to get into difficulty and to offer support at an early stage. This work is being supported by funding from CIB devolved to each region.
A small number of councils are currently the subject of a DfE improvement notice. CIB is offering advice and support to all these councils which goes beyond the normal mutual support and challenge taking place between councils in regions.
CIB is supporting councils to respond to significant policy implementation challenges. CIB's approach to this work is to establish with the sector the areas of need and demand. Much of this work will be agreed through local and regional choice but there are challenges that require a more national approach that can bring consistency and efficiency.
All regions have identified programmes of policy implementation work. In addition CIB is leading national work on:
Further initiatives are under discussion with councils, particularly in relation to safeguarding and adoption.
CIB has made agreements with all regions that enable funds to be devolved within the terms of the overall funding agreement between DfE and CIB.
The regional agreements focus on:
Regions have all established governance arrangements that are mainly based on existing local structures. In each region a lead member, a chief executive and a director of children's services to take responsibility for the delivery of the agreements and the related expenditure and for reporting back to CIB.
The funding for each region from CIB includes sufficient funding for project management in support of regional children's improvement work.
4 July 2012