About this research
The purpose of this research is to understand the lessons learnt by those councils that have undertaken large-scale structural change of children’s services, and to identify the key building blocks that ensure high quality services for children, young people and families in this context. It is based on fieldwork in five local areas which have experience of three specific forms of structural change: Alternative Delivery Models (ADM); partnership-based models; and the creation of Unitary Authorities. Details of the five fieldwork areas are outlined in Annex A. In addition to the five main fieldwork areas, we also spoke to senior leaders who had experience of structural change in three further local areas, and through the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) community of practice forums we obtained feedback from an additional six local authorities.
The drivers for structural change
Despite the differing contexts of the five local areas, there were some common messages about why local areas embarked on a process of structural change. In all five local areas there was a strong improvement incentive driving the decision to undertake large-scale structural change. Although the urgency and scale of the improvement challenge differed across the five, in all there was a strong narrative around the need to deliver better outcomes for children and families, and the opportunities that structural change might present to achieve this.
The secondary considerations driving structural change include a focus on efficiency and organisational resilience. Some local areas also viewed restructuring as a means of redefining the relationship between local and national government, providing them with greater presence and weight in national policy discussions and, alongside that, the freedom to do things differently.
The factors that influence the direction of change
Presented with a similar set of underlying reasons to change, individual local areas arrived at different structural solutions. In some areas these solutions were self-directed and in other areas these were required as a result of a Department for Education (DfE) intervention. Irrespective of where the locus of decision-making lay, there appear to be three broad factors that influence the direction or the model of structural change.
The first consideration is where the capacity to improve will come from. In some cases, the judgement was that there was sufficient inherent capacity within the local authority and its statutory partners to deliver the improvements needed. In other local areas, the decision was made that either there was insufficient internal improvement capacity or that there would be significant benefits in supplementing the internal improvement capacity from another source.
The second consideration which helps shape the nature of the structural solution chosen is scale. Specifically, the structure has to be large enough to support the cost of an experienced DCS plus dedicated leaders and specialist staff to function effectively. Very small children’s services units were perceived as potentially closer to communities but also much less resilient and more volatile.
The final factor in determining the shape and nature of the structural solution was geography. Put simply, where a local area had supportive, high performing neighbouring authorities close by, a partnership-based option was much more likely.
The key enablers of effective structural change
The research identified nine key enablers of structural change, set out in the diagram below:
A long-term commitment to a particular structural model and the time to see changes through to their end-point is critical. This creates stability, continuity and an environment in which high quality practice can thrive. The length of time it can take for new structures and practices to embed requires constancy in implementing change.
Having a strong political impetus backing and guiding the change process was seen as a key building block of successful change, and a critical obstacle when that was not in place. There were significant differences in the nature of political engagement between those instances of structural change which were instigated by locally elected politicians and those where the change is externally imposed. But nonetheless, elected members are powerful influencers of the course and efficacy of structural change in both scenarios.
Leadership and vision
The vision for what a local area is trying to achieve through structural change must be clearly articulated in the difference it will achieve for children and families. There must be a clear rationale, and an understanding of the theory of change, for why the proposed changes are expected to lead to better outcomes. Creating clear design principles and a strong rationale gives staff and partners confidence in the purpose of change and speaks strongly to their underlying values.
There are also specific behaviours and qualities of senior leaders that are associated with successful structural change. Leaders need to be visible and hands-on with a continued focus on practice and performance as well as the broader structural reform. The leadership team needs to be able to have open and honest debates among themselves but be able to present a united and coherent presence when those debates are resolved. Above all, senior leaders must be approachable and both able and willing to listen. There is an important role for leadership, at all levels, to ensure that staff feel safe and contained, drawing on established processes to manage risk. A common view emerged relating to the importance of continuity of leadership in children’s services during a period of structural change.
Those who had positive experience of structural change clearly identified the ability to “tell the story” as an essential communication tool. Communication through “storytelling” involves humanising the experience and bringing back narratives of individual children and families, to be able to answer the question “why are we doing this.” It also enables narratives to be constructed around the journey of the organisation, for example the type of behaviours, working environment or culture that it would embrace going forward. Alongside developing the story or narrative of change, those who took part in the research also identified the need for quick and clear communication on essential matters, particularly those which relate to staff roles or terms and conditions. Having a very open and transparent approach to communication, quick feedback loops and clear lines of delegation and responsibility were all seen to be helpful.
Engagement and co-production
Local areas involved in this research emphasised the role of co-designing the detail of the structural design with communities, with staff and with partners. This depended on senior leaders being committed to learning from the experience of staff but also staff being able to express their views about change in terms of the impact on children and families. Some local areas described the process of engaging staff in discussions about the future shape and feel of the organisation as having a transformational impact on the degree to which staff felt invested in the new structures. Other areas referenced how engaging with communities and families had fundamentally altered the way they thought about their services and how they conceived the model for change.
Culture and staff stability
One of the key opportunities afforded by a new structure, or a completely new organisation, was to embed a positive change in culture and the behaviours associated with that. Several local areas described how focusing on the culture of the organisation was the starting point for change, and the touchstone to which they would return. Modelling and making explicit the behaviours that would support the developing culture of the new organisation or structure was identified as important.
Stabilising the workforce during a period of change, and sometimes in response to poor performance, was also seen as critical. Celebrating good practice as a foundation for the future and creating a culture of shared responsibility and positive support; capitalising on the new “brand” of the organisation; maximising opportunities for shared learning and career development opportunities; and getting the basics right in terms of HR and Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (TUPE) all contributed to securing and retaining staff.
Governance and accountability
Getting the governance and accountability right involves being clear about the desired outcomes and having good quality, accurate data to be able to measure progress. It was also important to be able to explain the purpose of the data to staff and partners. Depending on the type of structure put in place, there are specific demands and priorities in terms of governance. However, across the board the focus was on achieving clarity, transparency and simplicity and avoiding the risk of over-governance.
Detailed planning, dedicated resource
It is impossible to manage large scale structural change well without strong project and programme management, a logical and widely communicated plan, backed up by excellent HR, finance and legal resources with a strong understanding of children’s services. Many local areas pointed to the importance of getting the phasing right of the different stages of the change process. A consistent message was that the planning cannot stop when the new structure “goes live”. Maintaining the internal programme management capacity needed to continue to sort out legacy issues and manage ongoing complexities is an important element in ensuring the benefits of the new structure are realised.
IT and management information systems
Finally, many large-scale structural change programmes will lead to significant demands in terms of data transfer and to a greater or lesser extent the harmonisation of IT and management information systems. Many areas described the difficulty involved in choosing an IT platform for each service and retraining staff to be able to use the new platform. In some areas, the transfer to a new system was frontloaded and formed part of the new organisational structure from the outset. In other areas a more gradual approach was taken to bringing together management information systems with a focus on developing a bespoke model that combined the best from the various legacy systems.
The research has drawn out some consistent structural design principles which are relevant to a wide range of ways of delivering children’s services. The first is the importance of creating a structure which enables children’s services to operate as an integrated whole. Senior leaders argued that the interconnectedness of work with families means that you can serve children and young people better when there is strong integration between early help, children’s social care, inclusion, education and youth services.
The second is a structure that enables the right type of dialogue and engagement between children’s service and local communities. Leaders reflected that local areas in which “place matters” seem to do better, and that a clear understanding of places and localities should be the starting point of any structure.
Thirdly, a feature of a well-designed children’s services structure is that it enables and supports partners to engage in a meaningful way. It is respectful of partners’ time and capacity. It provides regular touchpoints where conversations that lead to better outcomes can take place. Multi-agency boards are vibrant and outcome focused.
The fourth design principle is that the structure of children’s services should facilitate strong relationships with the rest of local government including other council services and elected members. Children’s services cannot operate in isolation. The relationship between children’s services and elected members ensures local democratic legitimacy. The relationship between children’s services and other council services enables coherent interventions to be delivered for local people and local places. And the role of children’s services leaders in corporate decision-making ensures that the voice of children, young people and their families are heard and reflected in wider council priorities, including the critical corporate parenting role.
Our final design principle is that children’s services must pay attention to the structures that support the quality of practice, and that define the relationship between professionals delivering services and children and families receiving support. Many of the local areas we engaged in the research described how attention to core processes focused on improving practice, such as quality assurance and audit, and a unified practice model helps to provide the glue that holds structures together.
How important is structural change in the improvement journey?
The views of the senior leaders who we engaged in this research, were broadly that in their specific local areas structural change had been a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of improvement. In other words, a new structural form had been essential, but on its own would not have been enough to deliver better outcomes. What must accompany structural change, therefore, is the relentless focus on the quality of practice and the implementation of what research shows to be effective in improving outcomes. Structural change is an enabler which can create the leadership, staffing and financial capacity to deliver improvement.
Over the last decade there has been significant diversification in the way that children’s services are structured and delivered. In their 2016 strategy for Children’s Social Care, Putting Children First, DfE signalled their ambition that more local authorities should embrace different ways of delivering children’s services including outsourcing the delivery of children’s services to a not-for-profit company or trust, or combining delivery across multiple local areas. These have continued to be among the structural solutions directed by DfE in circumstances when local children’s services have been found inadequate by Ofsted and other routes to improvement are not deemed viable.
Also in 2016, the LGA commissioned Isos Partnership to undertake research into the key enablers of improvement in children’s services - Action research into improvement in local children’s services. This was followed up by research into models of external improvement support for local authorities in 2017 - Enabling improvement – research into the role and models of external improvement support for local children’s services. The time is now right to revisit some of the findings of this research and ask the question, five years on, what have local authorities and their partners learned from the process of undertaking structural change, and how has that knowledge and learning evolved?
However, the purpose of this research is not simply a retrospective view of structural improvement interventions and their implementation. There are other trends which are making structural change in children’s services more common now, or more likely in the future. Current and ongoing proposals for local government reorganisation are leading to the creation of new unitary authorities and new partnerships between local areas. For local areas embarking upon a process of structural change to support this reorganisation, it will be helpful to draw on the experience of those who have been on a similar journey.
In parallel, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has shone a spotlight on a system under extreme pressure. It has highlighted the spiralling costs of meeting the needs of children in the care system leaving a diminishing resource envelope for investment in early intervention and family support; what it considers to be an over-emphasis on investigation and the lack of time spent in providing practical help to families; challenges around recruitment and retention of talented social workers combined with insufficient time for social workers to carry out direct work with families; and the national shortcomings in supporting young people who are at risk from their peers and their community rather than their families. The review asserts that bold and creative new ways of working will be needed to address these challenges, which may include looking at different models of how children’s social care is led, organised and delivered in a local area and with local partners. Having a strong evidence base on what has worked well and what has proved more challenging in terms of improving children’s services through structural change will be critical in providing a well-informed system response to future recommendations.
The purpose of this research, therefore, is to understand the lessons learnt by those councils and children’s services departments that have undergone significant structural change, and to identify the key building blocks or ‘anchors’ that ensure high quality services for children, young people and families even in the context of significant change. The specific aims of the research are to:
- understand the range of ways in which different approaches to structural change or ADM have been used to improve local delivery of children’s services;
- identify the key anchors or building blocks that are required if structural changes to children’s services are to be successfully implemented; and
- to explore the extent to which structural change has been a genuine spur to improvement in terms of outcomes for children and families, costs in delivering the system and commitment of staff and partners.
This research has been commissioned by the Local Government Association and has been carried out by a small team from Isos Partnership and the National Children’s Bureau. In carrying out this research, our focus has been on large-scale structural change. By that, we mean long-term and ongoing structural change processes that fundamentally alter the way in which children’s services is delivered. Following a brief review of relevant literature, we have focused on three specific forms of large-scale structural change:
- Alternative Delivery Models – where the delivery of children’s services is outsourced to a Trust or not-for-profit organisation that is separate from, but accountable to, the local council.
- Partnership based models – where a single leadership team oversees delivery of children’s services across two or more local councils.
- The creation of Unitary Authorities - where, through the process of local government reorganisation, a county council and its relevant district authorities combine to become a new single tier unitary authority across a specific geography.
Our methodological approach to the research was semi-structured interviews with a wide range of local authority elected members, officers and partners in five local areas which had experience of the three different change processes above. The five fieldwork areas, and how they relate to our three types of structural change, are shown below:
|Alternative delivery models
Achieving for Children (Kingston, Richmond and Windsor and Maidenhead)
|Partnership based models
Hampshire and the Isle of Wight
Bi-Borough (Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea)
Achieving for Children (Kingston, Richmond and Windsor and Maidenhead)
The focus of the research is on the key enablers of effective structural change, therefore we focused our fieldwork in areas which had undergone a process of structural change and had delivered improved services. The sample was deliberately skewed towards understanding good practice, rather than being representative of all local authorities that had undergone a structural change process. In addition to the five main fieldwork areas, we also spoke to senior leaders who had experience of structural change in Sunderland, Birmingham and Northamptonshire and to the policy lead in the Department for Education with responsibility for Children’s Services improvement and interventions.
Across the five areas in which we carried out in-depth fieldwork, we spoke to a selection of:
- Elected Members with responsibility for children’s services,
- Chief Executives
- Directors of Children’s Services,
- Assistant Directors with responsibility for key parts of the children’s services delivery model including early help, safeguarding and child protection, education and inclusion, children in care and quality assurance.
- Key statutory partners such as health and the police
- Those with responsibility for managing and overseeing the change process itself.
In each of our interviews and focus groups we asked participants to reflect on:
- the nature of the change process that they had undertaken, including the rationale, the journey they had been on and the key stages;
- how they had engaged the full range of local partners, staff and children and young people and their families in the change process, and to what extent that engagement was successful;
- the extent to which the change or restructure has been the main driver for any positive benefits, and the evidence they had collected to substantiate those views;
- the critical success criteria that need to be in place to enable a planned service restructure or change to deliver the improvements that were anticipated;
- any ‘lessons learned’ on what they would do differently if they were to embark upon the process again; and
- what their experience of change and improvement as a local area might mean for the difficult policy and funding choices facing the children’s social care system nationally at this time.
The National Children’s Bureau host a series of community of practice forums linked to children’s services which include heads of service; team managers; and social workers. Through a short poll we identified a focused sub-group of practitioners whose local areas have been through structural change to test out the key enablers. Feedback was obtained from an additional seven local authorities, six of which were not already involved in the research.
This report consolidates the evidence collected through the fieldwork process. The key milestones and features of structural change in each of the five fieldwork areas are briefly described in Annex A.
The drivers for structural change
Large-scale structural change is, by its very nature, time consuming, emotionally intense and hard work. Local children’s services do not engage in a process of redefining their mode of delivery, their leadership and governance arrangements and their relationships between teams and with partners on a whim. Understanding why individual areas undertake structural change is therefore the first stage in better understanding the change process itself.
In all the local areas that we engaged in the research there was a strong improvement incentive driving the decision to undertake large-scale structural change. However, the depth, scale and immediacy of the improvement challenge differed across the sample.
In three out of the five fieldwork areas (Worcestershire, Richmond and Kingston, and Hampshire and the Isle of Wight), the final impetus for structural change came as a result of a direction from the Department for Education following an inadequate inspection judgement. In some cases that direction followed a long period of entrenched poor performance, which other improvement approaches had failed to shift. In a minority of cases, structural change was the option of last resort. It was seen as essential because all other attempts at improvement had been tried and had failed.
In other cases, where the need to improve was similarly acute but perhaps less entrenched, the decision to move towards structural change was taken more swiftly. This was often a reflection of the political will in the area and the extent to which different and alternative structures had been considered in the lead-up to the decision.
Even in those areas where addressing poor performance was a less immediate imperative, there was a strong narrative around the need to deliver better outcomes for children and families, and the opportunities that structural change might present to achieve this.
Efficiency, resilience and weight
In the two local areas where structural change did not arise as a response to an external direction (Dorset and the Bi-Borough), the desire to stimulate improvement sat alongside other related drivers. In both areas a key driver was efficiency and the opportunity to achieve economies of scale. Specifically, restructuring allowed the preservation of capacity at the frontline and the reduction in management layers and associated overheads. This was particularly relevant in the context of financial pressures facing children’s services or broader council functions. Efficiency was undoubtedly a powerful driver, but as one Director of Children’s Services (DCS) commented – “It can’t just be about money”, relating the fiscal incentives closely back to the need to deliver better outcomes for children and families.
Alongside the desire to create a more efficient mode of delivery was the expectation that the new structure would also drive greater resilience, with more capacity to withstand shocks and greater flexibility to move staff and resources where they were needed.
Both councils also viewed restructuring as a means of redefining the relationship between local and national government, providing them with greater presence and weight in national policy discussions and, alongside that, the freedom to do things differently.
The factors that influence the direction of change
The need to improve outcomes for children and families, and to a lesser extent create opportunities for efficiency, resilience and influence, provides a shared rationale for why the five local areas engaged in this research embarked upon a process of structural change. However, presented with a similar set of underlying reasons to change, individual local areas arrived at different structural solutions. In some areas these solutions were self-directed and in other areas these were required as a result of a DfE intervention. Irrespective of where the locus of decision-making lay, there appear to be three broad factors that influence the direction or the model of structural change.
The first consideration referenced by leaders and decision-makers was understanding where the capacity to improve will come from. In some cases, the judgement was that there was sufficient inherent capacity within the local authority and its statutory partners to deliver the improvements needed. Where this was the case, there was typically consistent political direction and commitment, stable and experienced leadership at officer level, honest self-assessment of strengths and areas for improvement, a platform for leveraging the support of statutory partners and other parts of the council and sufficient areas of internal good practice on which to draw.
In other local areas, the decision was made that either there was insufficient internal improvement capacity or that there would be significant benefits in supplementing the internal improvement capacity from another source. Where there is not enough improvement capacity for a local area to improve strongly and quickly unilaterally, the additional capacity typically comes from two sources – either from a partnership with another local authority or from the creation of a new delivery organisation with a new leadership tier, bolstered with externally commissioned challenge and support.
The second consideration which helps shape the nature of the structural solution chosen is scale. Children’s services is a low volume, high complexity service. Compared with adult social care in any given area, for example, the number of children requiring support is likely to be far fewer but the unit cost and the resource intensity of supporting them is likely to be significantly higher. This means that there is often greater volatility in predicting finances, and a significant management overhead to cover the range of specialist areas. Many of the leaders to whom we spoke described how important it had been to consider the final scale of the proposed children’s services structure to determine how sustainable it would be going forward. Specifically, the structure had to be large enough to support the cost of an experienced DCS plus dedicated leaders and specialist staff to function effectively. Very small children’s services units were perceived as potentially closer to communities but also much less resilient and more volatile.
The final factor that fieldwork participants identified as instrumental in determining the shape and nature of the structural solution was geography. Put simply, where a local area had supportive, high performing neighbouring authorities close by, a partnership-based option was much more likely. The relative scale of different partners was also a consideration. Two or more relatively small local authorities working together is a model that appears to be effective. A larger local authority working with and supporting a smaller local authority also has strong precedents. The opportunity for a small local authority to support a much larger neighbour was seen to be much more challenging, for the reasons of capacity and scale set out above.
The importance of geographical proximity is a consideration that seems to have grown in importance over time. Many of the leaders to whom we spoke have been engaged in a range of partnership-based improvement activities. Several of them commented on the increased challenge of providing arms-length support when it is difficult for the leadership team to be in-situ for enough time to effect change. Some areas have changed their strategy over time in line with this experience. The early vision for Achieving for Children, for example, was based on a model of five local children’s services departments working together through a single shared company, which may or may not have been geographically close to each other. As the service has matured and evolved, however, the importance of maintaining geographical integrity has become a more significant consideration leading to a decision not to currently expand beyond the three boroughs of Richmond, Kingston, and Windsor and Maidenhead.
The key enablers of effective structural change
Although the local areas that we engaged in this research were involved in very varied approaches to structural change from outsourcing to partnership, to local government reform, there was a remarkable degree of similarity in what research participants described as the key building blocks or enablers of effective structural change. These are set out in Diagram 1 and explained in more detail in the subsequent sections of this report.
A key reflection, particularly from leaders in those areas which have the benefit on looking back over several years since the structural change was put in place, is that a long-term commitment to a particular model and the time to see changes through to their end-point is critical. This was supported through NCB’s community of practice feedback which identified this as one of the most important enablers.
Longevity creates stability and continuity and an environment in which high quality practice can thrive. Senior leaders responsible for both partnership-based delivery models and alternative delivery mechanisms described the length of time it can take for new structures and practices to embed and the need for constancy in implementing change.
In cases where the structural change came about as a result of a DfE direction the in-built timeframe of that decision was seen as extremely helpful. In describing their partnership with the Isle of Wight, a senior leader in Hampshire explained “The DfE direction meant that we were in place for five years as a minimum. This provided stability and continuity.” In the case of Children’s Services Trusts or other Alternative Delivery Models, many are in the fourth or fifth year of their contract and may be considering further five or 10-year contract renewals. These areas would often typically describe themselves still on the improvement journey.
All the restructures that we have considered as part of this research to some extent involve renegotiating the relationship between children’s services and elected members. In the case of the partnership-based structures, a single officer-level leadership team serves the needs of two sovereign sets of elected members. Where Alternative Delivery Mechanisms have been set up, this involves the transfer of delivery of children’s services to an external organisation that is accountable under contract to the elected leadership of the council. While the council retains statutory responsibility for children’s services it is not responsible in the same way for day-to-day delivery of those services. In the case of the creation of a unitary authority, functions that were previously the responsibility of district councillors are aggregated at the new unitary level.
Given that large scale structural change almost always involves redefining how elected members interact with the delivery of children’s services, it is perhaps not surprising that having a strong political impetus backing and guiding the change process was seen as a key building block of successful change, and a critical obstacle when that was not in place. There is, of course, a significant difference between those instances of structural change which were instigated by locally elected politicians and those where the change is externally imposed. But nonetheless, elected members are powerful influencers of the course and efficacy of structural change in both scenarios.
In Dorset, becoming a unitary authority and the subsequent localised delivery model for children’s services was a strongly politically led process, designed to deliver greater financial security, better outcomes, more unified decision-making and a greater presence on the national stage. In the case of the creation of the Tri-Borough (now Bi-Borough) partnership the political alignment and consensus across all three Conservative boroughs, contributed to a strongly shared vision of what they might achieve in partnership. Achieving for Children, and the concept of an Alternative Delivery Mechanism for delivering children’s services, clearly spoke to the political ideology of the elected members at the time. The longevity of the Hampshire – Isle of Wight Partnership, well beyond the externally stipulated period and beyond the point at which the Isle of Wight’s services were judged to be good – is dependent on both sets of elected members continuing to recognise the benefits the partnership brings to leaders, to staff and ultimately to children and families.
The role of elected members in driving through a change process that has been imposed upon a local area, against the will of locally elected politicians, is naturally more complicated. This is how the establishment of Children’s Services Trusts, or other Alternative delivery Mechanisms, have sometimes been viewed in cases of DfE direction. However, there are important differences in the experiences of areas in which local politicians have been able to embrace the change, however unwelcome it may initially have been, and quickly understand the critical nature of their redefined role in holding the new children’s services delivery partner to account and those where a “them and us” approach of non-cooperation has been more prevalent. In Worcestershire, for example, following earlier strong council opposition to the development of the ADM, the establishment of Worcestershire Children First as a “council-owned” delivery model encompassing all children’s services, was relatively quickly recognised as the right approach and the way forward by the council. Politicians now broadly embrace the model and the need to work alongside Worcestershire Children First. There is a strong view within the council that permanency of workforce, culture change and strong determined leadership (within Worcestershire Children’s First) have been the levers to effect improvement. This is perhaps in contrast to areas in which local politicians may have taken much longer to be reconciled to the establishment of an Alternative Delivery Mechanism or have been slower to find a way to work productively with and alongside such mechanisms.
The fieldwork evidence also throws up some examples of what can happen when a previously stable political consensus comes under pressure. Several areas with longstanding partnerships or structures in place reported having to renegotiate how these operated or were delivered following significant local elections. However, the evidence also suggests that some variation in political direction can be overcome where the quality and economy of the service offer makes sense. The bottom line is elected members have a critical role to play in setting the direction of structural change, enabling it to be executed effectively and ensuring its longevity.
Leadership and vision
It has become a truism that good leadership and a strong vision are essential components of any change process, big or small. Through this research, we have tried to isolate the aspects of establishing a clear vision and leading effectively that are particularly pertinent to the process of large-scale structural change in children’s services.
The first message that came from the fieldwork is that the vision for what a local area is trying to achieve through structural change must be clearly articulated in the difference it wants to achieve for children and families. There has to be a very clear rationale, and an understanding of the theory of change, for why the proposed changes are expected to lead to better outcomes. Creating clear design principles and a strong rationale gives people confidence and belief in the purpose of change and speaks strongly to the underlying values of staff and partners.
Fieldwork participants also described some specific behaviours and qualities of senior leaders that are associated with successful structural change. First, leaders need to be visible and hands-on with a continued focus on practice and performance as well as the broader structural reform. In working through difficult decisions, the leadership team needs to be able to have open and honest debates among themselves but be able to present a united and coherent presence when those debates are resolved. That said, unity and consistency in decision-making should not be mistaken for stubbornness or close-mindedness. Above all, senior leaders must be approachable and both able and willing to listen.
During large scale children’s services structural reform, there is an important role for leadership, at all levels, to ensure that staff feel safe and contained. The risk-level inherent in children’s social care does not diminish just because a change process is underway and therefore the core processes of supervision, quality assurance and audit can achieve even greater importance. Many described the value of a “high support, high challenge” model of leadership and the impact of simply being kind. One local area that had improved dramatically in a short space of time described how previously they had a series of charismatic individual leaders who had not succeeded in making the improvements needed. This time they had purposefully created a leadership model that was “more evidence-based, more collaborative, better embedded and more than the individual”. This had been transformative.
A common view emerged relating to the importance of continuity of leadership in children’s services that was strategic, purposeful, and committed to the delivery of tangible improvement across the service. This was in evidence across Worcestershire Children’s First. There was a clear and understood direction of travel and improvement plan rather than the repeated ‘start again’ episodes of the past.Partners commented positively upon levels of engagement and powerful and effective communication systems. Partners also reflected that they knew that when ‘the Chief Executive of Worcestershire Children First pulled a lever this would lead to positive and effective action taking place’.
A particular challenge of leading through a process of structural change is that individual leaders themselves may also be facing uncertainty about their roles or their futures. One local area described how they developed a top-down approach to appointment to ensure that leaders had the opportunity to design, shape and build the teams that they would lead going forwards. Another area highlighted the potentially isolating effects of being in a leadership position and referenced the importance of the partnership structures in creating a peer group for leaders. Nonetheless, one local leader advised that individuals need to steel themselves for the personal and emotional toll that leading structural change can have in terms of supporting friends and colleagues impartially through challenging decisions, managing grievances and marking ends and beginnings in positive ways.
Effective communication was the fourth key enabler or building block identified by our fieldwork participants. Through NCB’s community of practice, it was identified as the joint most important enabler alongside longevity. The word most often used in connection with good communication was “storytelling”. Those who had positive experience of structural change clearly identified the ability to “tell the story” as an essential communication tool. The word “storytelling” wraps up several different communication ideas. Firstly, those who participated in the research referenced the importance of humanising the experience and bringing back narratives of individual children and families, to be able to answer the question “why are we doing this.” Secondly, individuals described the narratives that could be constructed around the journey of the organisation, for example the type of behaviours, working environment or culture that it would embrace going forward. This type of storytelling is designed to answer the question “what might this mean for me, or how do I contribute?”. Finally, the idea of storytelling captures the fact that communication is an iterative and ongoing process. Stories are remembered, shared and repeated. They evolve and take on new life and detail through repetition. Viewing communication as a shared, iterative evolving process is a good basis for guiding an organisation through a complex change process.
Alongside developing the story or narrative of change, those who took part in the research also identified the need for quick and clear communication on essential matters, particularly those which relate to staff roles or terms and conditions. One senior leader commented “we learned that the grapevine worked quicker than the intranet.” Another reflected that they were not quick enough to communicate the impact of the proposed changes on staff and lost some good people as a result. Having a very open and transparent approach to communication, quick feedback loops and clear lines of delegation and responsibility were all seen to be helpful in this regard. One local area described how they established quite a prescriptive approach to team meetings and staff briefings during the change process to ensure people were receiving the same information at the same time. This was viewed as time intensive but a helpful approach to embedding change consistently.
Some of the areas that we engaged in the research had experience of implementing structural change during the Covid19 pandemic. This placed quite a different lens on the challenges of and opportunities for effective communication. The volume of face-to-face staff interactions was greatly reduced, and the power of co-location as a tool in cementing new working relationships was non-existent. However, colleagues in those areas reflected that covid also offered opportunities, for example the speed, rapidity and frequency afforded by online meetings as well as the ability for the senior leadership team to address the whole workforce together much more often than would have been possible in the office. In future, as we move towards more hybrid ways of working, maintaining the flexibility of online communications in the context of large-scale structural reform will be an important learning point.
Engagement and co-production
As well as developing a clear vision, and communicating at a human level through stories, the local areas engaged in this research emphasised the role of co-designing the detail of the structural design with communities, with staff and with partners. For example, one local area described how they had learned the lessons of a previous youth services restructure, which was viewed as financially driven and imposed on the workforce, to be much more open and transparent in how they developed the service design, giving staff genuine opportunities to shape the direction of the organisation. This depended on senior leaders being committed to learning from the experience of staff but also staff being able to express their views about change in terms of the impact on children and families.
The Bi-borough described how they were able to use staff’s understanding of systemic practice – a children’s social care practice model which is about engaging people in a change process and understanding a model of change – as a language to explore how organisational change may impact on them and how they might shape it. Achieving for Children described the process of engaging staff in discussions about the future shape and feel of the organisation as having a transformational impact on the degree to which staff felt invested in the new structures. Dorset referenced how they had engaged with communities and families in developing their new children’s services localised model. As one local leader described “in designing our model, we were led by families who told us we were working in silos and that they were going round in circles trying to access the support they needed.”
Reflections from NCB’s community of practice highlighted this as the second most important enabler behind longevity and communication.
Culture and staff stability
Although large scale children’s services restructures might create new organisational forms that look and sound very different, the very large majority of staff from the last day of the previous structure to the first day of the new structure will be identical. A key challenge in how to carry out structural change effectively is, therefore, how to make the experience feel different and positive for staff, and how to create the conditions that ensure staff retention and continued recruitment both during the process of restructuring itself and as the new organisational form matures.
Good leadership, effective communication, and opportunities for co-production, as outlined in the sections above, are all critical for maintaining staff engagement during a process of structural change. However, local leaders also emphasised that one of the key opportunities afforded by a new structure, or even a completely new organisation, was to embed a positive change in culture and the behaviours associated with that. Several local areas described how focusing on the culture of the organisation was the starting point for change, and the touchstone to which they would return. In some cases, this was the result of many years of thinking and planning. Modelling and making explicit the behaviours that would support the developing culture of the new organisation or structure was identified as critical. Dorset described how they reformed their approach to appointments through the restructure, carrying out values-based interviews that placed greater emphasis on a candidate’s personal values, behaviour, and moral purpose than on sector-specific subject knowledge or expertise. In Worcestershire, many interviewees commented that the structural changes were less important than the establishment of a positive and effective workplace culture. Good leadership, recruiting, supporting and retaining the right people in a working environment where appropriate challenge and innovation was welcomed were seen as the critical ingredients.
For many of the local areas that carried out structural change in response to underperformance, poor staff recruitment and retention in children’s social care, leading to high levels of agency staff, diminishing quality and spiralling costs, was one of the ingredients contributing to service failure. In those areas, stabilising the workforce and finding opportunities to create greater staffing stability in future was critical.
Fieldwork participants identified several important aspects to building staff stability. Firstly, in areas where there had been historic underperformance, staff often felt demoralised and undervalued. Turning this around so that services could recognise their strengths and feel hopeful about the future was viewed as essential. This relates back to the previous point about organisational culture. Ongoing poor performance can often be associated with a blame culture. Creating an environment of shared responsibility and positive support is the antithesis of this. Many of the senior leaders to whom we spoke highlighted that even in a poorly performing service there are aspects of good practice and areas of strength that can be celebrated as a building block for the future.
Secondly, fieldwork participants drew attention to the way in which the new organisation, or the new structure presented itself – its brand – as a way of attracting and keeping staff. Many of those who contributed talked about the power of a “fresh start” and the importance of the language used in describing the new organisational structure. Some of the areas that had established new organisational forms used the opportunity to highlight the potential benefits to staff of working in a different type of public sector environment that had the potential to be less bureaucratic, more responsive and less hierarchical. In areas forging a new partnership, leaders could reference the historic culture of excellence and high performance as a foundation for recruiting and retaining the workforce moving forwards.
Thirdly, many areas were swift to capitalise on the benefits of the new structures for retaining staff. In the case of partnerships, many local leaders made reference to the fantastic learning and career development opportunities that can arise from working across more than one local area, particularly for middle leaders keen to expand the breadth of their experience. This was seen as contributing strongly to retention and a more stable workforce in areas such as Hampshire and the Isle Of Wight, and the Bi-borough. A similar broadening of opportunities for staff development and learning across disciplines also arose from Dorset’s localised children’s services structure with its opportunity to work in multi-disciplinary teams and matrix management roles. In many of the areas that had established Alternative Delivery Mechanisms, staff were attracted to work for an organisation that had a dedicated children’s services focus and could leverage additional grant funding or other investment opportunities.
Finally, many of the local areas engaged in this research underscored how important it is to get the HR basics right during a restructure such as being very clear about the TUPE arrangements and standardising Terms and Conditions wherever possible. As one senior leader commented “You have to be brave at the beginning. Know what model you are going for and drive it through TUPE”.
Governance and accountability
The seventh key enabler identified by fieldwork participants was getting the governance and accountability right. At its core this means being clear about the desired outcomes and having good quality, accurate data to be able to measure progress. It was also important to be able to explain the purpose of the data to staff and partners. As one local leader described it – “focusing on data but humanising at every step”.
Depending on the type of structure put in place there are particular demands and priorities in terms of governance that need to be thought through. In those local areas that had set up an Alternative Delivery Mechanism for children’s services it was imperative to securely establish the contractual arrangement between the owning council and the delivery organisation. Those areas which had done this effectively described the impact of transparency an “open book” working both on cementing relationships and driving better outcomes. However, local areas which had established Alternative Delivery Mechanisms also highlighted the risks of muddled lines of accountability, the need to service too many governance boards with different types of oversight and the multiple external challenge points that could end up detracting from rather than enhancing the improvement effort. The risk of over-governance is that officers end up spending too much time “feeding the machine” to the detriment of focusing on improving practice.
Areas with Alternative Delivery Mechanisms had also thought through the implications in terms of the statutory leadership of children’s services. The Director of Children’s services is a statutory role and, in most cases, the same individual was both the DCS and the Chief Executive of the Community Interest Company or Trust. It was then the responsibility of that individual to report directly to the Lead Member for Children’s Services and represent children’s services corporately within the council.
In areas that had established a new partnership arrangement, the governance challenges were somewhat different. In these areas the challenge was how to streamline and simplify the demands on senior leaders, and on statutory partners, to be able to respond to two sets of political imperatives, two scrutiny processes, two forms of financial and outcome reporting, without doubling workload. Added to this was the question of how to create a unified form of governance across the new partnership entity, enabling the exchange of ideas and learning across the whole, without compromising the sovereign status of two democratically elected bodies. In many of the local areas to which we spoke, irrespective of whether they were delivering through a partnership, an Alternative Delivery Mechanism or a different organisational form, getting the governance framework right so that it was proportionate and contributed substantially to the quality of services, was an ongoing task.
Detailed planning, dedicated resource
Local areas that we engaged in the fieldwork were unanimous that it is impossible to manage large scale structural change well without really strong project and programme management, a logical and widely communicated plan, backed up by excellent HR, finance and legal resources with a strong understanding of children’s services. This view was supported by NCB’s communities of practice.
Many local areas pointed to the importance of getting the phasing and timing right of the different stages of the change process. One local area, for example, started their restructure with some of the simpler more self-contained services before moving on to the more complex and higher-risk services.
For those areas setting up a completely new legal entity – such as the new Unitary Authority in Dorset or a Community Interest Company in Richmond and Kingston – there was a very clear emphasis on having all the legal and statutory powers established, and the necessary forms of delegated responsibility. In the words of one local leader “Ensuring that we were safe and legal on day one was paramount”. In the case of Dorset, having a good Shadow Authority to guide the process and having structural orders in place was important.
Finally, a consistent message was that the planning cannot stop when the new structure “goes live”. Maintaining the internal programme management capacity needed to continue to sort out legacy issues, to manage ongoing complexities in staffing and to be flexible enough to rethink areas of the new structure which, after further reflection and testing have not worked as well as might have been anticipated, is an important element in ensuring the benefits of the new structure are realised.
IT and management information systems
Finally, any structural change which involves bringing two local areas together, redefining the geographical boundaries of a local area, or disaggregating services previously joined across different parts of an organisation is likely to lead to significant demands in terms of data transfer and to a greater or lesser extent the harmonisation of IT and management information systems. Many areas described the difficulty involved in choosing an IT platform for each service and retraining staff to be able to use the new platform. In some areas, the transfer to a new system was frontloaded and formed part of the new organisational structure from the outset. In other areas a more gradual approach was taken to bringing together management information systems with a focus on developing a bespoke model that combined the best from the various legacy systems.
In Dorset, which redefined its geographical boundaries as part of the process of becoming a Unitary Authority, a particular challenge was identifying the children, young people and families that would continue to be the responsibility of Dorset Council and those who would become the responsibility of the new neighbouring Unitary Authority, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, and then enabling the records for those children and families to be safely transferred between different council IT platforms. This was achieved through detailed work to establish the individual case histories of any children or families whose primary geographical allocation was unclear and then agreeing a protocol to enable shared access to Dorset’s management information for key staff from Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole to enable sufficient time for the records to be extracted and copied across. This transition period lasted beyond the “go-live” date of the new Unitary Authority to enable time for the process to be completed securely.
While many local areas had found making sense of the multiplicity of IT platforms a challenge, consistent forward planning allied with a clear focus on simplifying transitions was seen to be effective.
It is not the purpose of this research to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of different structural models. Indeed, the evidence that we have collected suggests that decisions about how a local children’s services might evolve are so context specific that a simple ‘compare and contrast’ may have little value. However, in exploring with fieldwork participants the relative strengths and challenges associated with the different structural solutions they have deployed, it is possible to begin to draw out some consistent design principles, or design questions, which are relevant to a wide range of ways of delivering children’s services.
It may be helpful to think about these design principles as a way of paying attention to different types of relationship. As one DCS put it, “structures are about the relationships with individuals, with the environment and with other services.”
The first design principle, the integrity of children’s services, is about the relationship between the different teams or services that all support children and families in a local area. The second, localities and communities, is about the relationship between children’s services and the local places that they serve. The third and fourth are about the relationships between children’s services and their statutory partners, and between children’s services and other parts of local government respectively. The final section – the quality of practice – is about the relationship between an individual children’s services professional and the child or family whom they are supporting.
Integrity of children’s services
Many of the local leaders whom we engaged in this research emphasised the importance of creating a structure which enables children’s services to operate as an integrated whole. Senior leaders argued that the interconnectedness of work with families means that you can serve children and young people better when there is strong integration between early help, children’s social care, inclusion, education and youth services. One Director of Children’s services observed that a key piece of learning from the Covid pandemic is that the best way to support vulnerable children and their families is through schools, which might argue for much closer structural alignment between children’s social care and education in the future, including placing social workers in schools. Others pointed to the essential continuum of support between early help to statutory children’s social care intervention, or from targeted youth support to contextual safeguarding. Dismantling the emerging unity of these pathways was viewed as a retrograde step.
The integrity of children’s services was expressed in different ways through the various structural models under examination. In Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, the partnership was based explicitly on a whole children’s service model, incorporating education and inclusion alongside children’s social care. Similarly, in Worcestershire the decision was taken early on to move education services into the not-for-profit trust, alongside children’s social care, to maintain that integrity. Many of those working within the Achieving for Children community interest company (CiC) cited the benefits of working for an organisation solely and completely focused on children’s services and saw this as a significant component in their ability to attract and retain staff. In Dorset the matrix management structure associated with their localised children’s services delivery model has created a cadre of heads of service who act as system leaders and understand the whole children’s landscape.
Localities and communities
The local areas engaged in this research had a range of ways of defining the relationship between children’s services teams and individual localities and communities. These relationships were informed by a variety of contextual factors including size, physical geography, urban and rural differences and patterns of deprivation. Nonetheless, enabling the right type of dialogue between children’s services and local communities was at the forefront of thinking in most of the areas we engaged. A selection of quotes from senior leaders across very different types of structure underline the extent to which defining a strong community focus was a key guiding design principle: “Think big and act local”; “Areas where place matters seem to do better”; “Teams around where people are make sense”; “Recognising what we have learned about places and localities should be the starting point of any structure.”
The experience of Dorset provides a helpful insight into how to develop the relationship between local communities and children’s services. After becoming a Unitary Authority, the council embarked on a wholesale reorganisation of children’s’ services on a locality footprint bringing together integrated place-based teams. In doing so they developed local alliance groups which consist of strategic partners in each locality (including, health, police, schools and the voluntary and community sector) which are responsible for deciding local priorities on the basis of the children and young people’s plan.
Relationships with partners
A feature of a well-designed children’s services structure is that it enables and supports partners to engage in a meaningful way. It is respectful of partners’ time and capacity. It provides regular touchpoints where conversations that lead to better outcomes can take place. Multi agency boards are vibrant and outcome focused. For many councils a key priority going forward is establishing effective integration with health partners, in the context of new Integrated Care Systems, in a way that genuinely prioritises the needs of children and young people rather than becoming dominated by larger adult’s services.
In Dorset, the chief executive described how the council set itself the principle of being “the partner of choice”, creating opportunities to challenge together, to celebrate together, and encouraging partners to lean in. Another senior leader explained that “We always saw the change as systemic – it always took place in conversation with partners”. In Worcestershire, the development of Worcestershire Children First enabled a refresh and establishment of stronger and more effective engagement with key partners. Whilst Worcestershire Children First provided clear strategic leadership and direction, partners felt fully engaged and clear about their respective roles in the improvement journey.
One of the features of children’s services in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, highlighted by statutory partners in health and the police, is the close alignment between children services and key partners at all levels in the system from strategic leaders setting a common vision and shared goals, through operational leaders and middle managers, right the way through to staff working at the front line. These relationships and close ways of working have enabled a culture to develop honest scrutiny and constructive challenge, leading to quicker solutions to challenges to which all partners contribute.
Relationships with the rest of the council and with elected members
Our fourth design principle is that the structure of children’s services should facilitate strong relationships with the rest of local government including other council services and elected members. Children’s services cannot operate in isolation. The relationship between children’s services and elected members ensures local democratic legitimacy. The relationship between children’s services and other council services enables coherent interventions to be delivered for local people and local places. And the role of children’s services leaders in corporate decision-making ensures that the voice of children, young people and their families are heard and reflected in wider council priorities. The importance of creating a structural form that gives sufficient prominence to children and young people, and enables their prioritisation within a complex landscape of potentially competing policy priorities, was emphasised by several leaders.
The fieldwork areas that we engaged in this research afforded a variety of fascinating views on this theme, influenced by their specific structural context. A key theme raised by local areas that had established an Alternative Delivery Mechanism to deliver children’s services was the importance of remaining close to the council. Achieving for Children, for example, described how the organisation had originally operated at a greater distance from the council which had caused tension and led to weaker links with the other parts of local government with which children’s services need to work such as housing, planning or adult social care. They recognised the strain that this was putting on the system and took action to repair the relationships and work more closely together. Now Achieving for Children “feels like a directorate of the local authority” and the council has real ownership of outcomes for children. The organisation does not want to be seen as “other” – it is critical to be at the corporate table, championing children in council decision-making and benefitting from the broader responsibilities and capacity of local government.
The notion that children’s services that are delivered through not-for-profit companies or trusts should work hand in glove with the owning council was a recurring theme across the local areas we engaged. In cases where the separation had come about as a result of a direction from national government, and had been strongly resisted locally, relationships may take longer to rebuild. However, those that were operating well were keen to stress the proximity of the organisations, not the separateness. One local leader emphasised that fundamentally what makes the biggest difference is not organisational form, but the quality and nature of relationships around a common goal – outcomes for children.
The link between children’s services and other local government services was highlighted from a different perspective by Dorset. They found that as a result of becoming a Unitary Authority they were able to take better and more joined-up decisions on issues that cut across building, planning, transport, inclusion and children and families. For example, as a council they have decided to invest in buying a school site (a former independent school) and converting that into specialist provision for children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND. This was an example of a decision that would have been much harder to take under a traditional two-tier model in which planning responsibilities at district level were more disconnected from children’s services.
In areas which had established a partnership across two or more local authorities, the relationships with elected members and other council services had a different complexion. In these areas the structural considerations focused on how children’s services can effectively meet the requirements of two sets of political leaders and contribute meaningfully to two sets of corporate processes and decision-making. In these areas senior leaders described the importance of being able to adapt to different contexts and create flexibility in how services are delivered to support locally-based decision-making. However, the statutory nature of much of children’s services meant that many of the differences were of interpretation rather than fundamentals. Ensuring complete transparency and fairness in how resources and capacity are allocated between individual councils was also important in maintaining the longevity of these partnerships.
The final issue raised by fieldwork areas, is that a good children’s services structure will enable the council, as a whole, to act as an effective corporate parent to children in care. This means councils using their natural, physical, political, human and financial capital to support those children for whom the council must act in place of the parent. As one DCS stated “Every department is aware we can do something for our most vulnerable children. There are lots of ideas that spark. We can make things happen through our networks, including political networks.”
Quality of practice
Our final design principle is that children’s services must pay attention to the structures that support the quality of practice, and that define the relationship between professionals delivering services and children and families receiving support. In the words of one DCS “The focus has to be on practice and putting the process and structure around that”.
Many of the local areas we engaged in the research described how attention to core processes focused on improving practice, such as quality assurance and audit and a single Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub, helped to provide the glue that held the structure together.
The experience of the Bi-Borough in this context was very interesting. Their partnership model is unusual in that it encompasses a mix of sovereign (single council) and integrated teams, some of which span two local areas and some three. What unites the whole service, however, is the focus on Systemic Practice as their approach to working with children and families. This provides a unifying thread across quite varied structural arrangements. It is supported through the Centre for Systemic Practice which is run by the Bi-borough and has an important role in supporting local areas across the country adopt the principles of systemic practice, delivering through regional hubs.
How important is structural change in the improvement journey?
It is undeniably true that children’s services can improve without the need for large-scale structural change. There are case studies throughout the country of local areas that have significantly improved outcomes for children and families without seriously reinventing their structural form. Many of those we engaged in this research recognised the ongoing relevance of the key enablers of improvement in children’s services set out in our publication Action research into improvement in local children’s services.
However, the context for change is all important. As described earlier in this report, unless the internal capacity to improve already exists and unless the organisation is operating at a scale which makes children’s services, and the specialisms required, affordable, then it is much more likely that some form of structural change will be needed to achieve sustained and meaningful improvement. In the words of one local leader ““We couldn’t have got where we wanted to without structural change.”
The views of the senior leaders who we engaged in this research, were broadly that in their specific local areas structural change had been a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of improvement. In other words, a new structural form had been essential, but on its own would not have been enough to deliver better outcomes. In the words of one senior leader “our focus is less on structures and more on sector led improvement at practitioner level.” In Worcestershire many interviewees felt the journey towards establishing the ADM had been quite lengthy and at times cumbersome. There was a strong view that the primary driver of change was the positive culture and strong leadership model within Worcestershire Children First. What must accompany structural change, therefore, is the relentless focus on the quality of practice and the implementation of what research shows to be effective in improving outcomes. Structural change is an enabler which can create the leadership, staffing and financial capacity to deliver improvement.
The local areas which took part in this research identified a wide range of benefits which flowed from the large-scale structural changes which they had undertaken. These might be summarised as:
- A strong new identity, or brand, with a clearer focus on children and young people.
- The opportunity to think differently, and more radically, about recruitment, retention and delivery.
- A greater breadth and depth of dialogue and shared learning, intensified by mutual support and competition. Richness in the exchange about intractable issues.
- Access to specialisms and skills that might otherwise be unaffordable.
- Stretch and exposure to different ways of working.
- Greater flexibility and more freedom to innovate.
At the same time, most of those to whom we spoke recognised that although structural change was an essential part of their improvement journey, there may have been more than one possible structural solution. As one senior leader said “The model is not important. What is important is what we do. The single focus on children and young people that doesn’t get swayed by other priorities; a strong identity; the chance to do things a bit differently; bringing in new people who identify with our organisational values. The structure was instrumental…to implementing a new staffing structure and practice model.” A minority even felt, on reflection, that there may have been alternative structural solutions that may have delivered similar benefits without some of the additional burdens and costs associated with new organisational forms. However, the core message was that form must follow function, and that the structural design must respond to the context of the local area at the time - the capacity, scale and geography - and the nature of the improvement challenge.
Conclusion - looking to the future
It is arguably a precarious moment in time for children’s services. Budget pressures on children’s social care, early help and, most significantly, SEND are well documented, and in some cases threaten to tip councils into a position of extreme financial insecurity. At the same time broader national changes, such as the development of Integrated Care Systems in health, the increased academisation of the school system and different approaches to Local Government Reform, will all have an impact on how children’s services are delivered locally. There is a risk that if leaders do not set their own vision for children’s services going forward, the shape and nature of delivery in future may be imposed by external forces.
The recent history of structural change in children’s services is largely, though not exclusively, born out of responses to adversity. There are only a few examples of local areas embracing significant structural changes from an initial position of relative strength, although there are some. Nonetheless, there are now many examples of local partnerships and new structural forms that have endured beyond an initial period of insecurity and improvement to flourish, in their own right. This research provides some insight into the key building blocks that have enabled those local areas to deliver on their vision for change and maintain it over time. It also, importantly, highlights the design principles that local leaders need to consider when embarking on a process of structural change. These are based around five core sets of relationships – within the different services that have responsibility for children; with elected members and other local government services; with key statutory partners; with local places and communities; and finally with individual children and young people. Tying all this together is the relentless focus on improving outcomes for children, young people and their families. It is hoped that as local areas consider how they might respond to the current pressures facing children’s services, and look to shape a future vision that affords priority to children and young people, that this research might provide a helpful framework for that process.
Annex A - The five fieldwork areas
Achieving for Children
Achieving for Children was set up in 2014, but discussions about the concept started long before that. The initial impetus to establish Achieving for Children was ideological and political. In 2010 a new Conservative administration had been elected in Richmond and was looking for ways to achieve better outcomes at lower cost. The DCS in Richmond at the time proposed establishing an Alternative Delivery Mechanism to deliver children’s services at arm’s length from, but reporting to, the council.
At the same time children’s services in Kingston were struggling and in 2012 were rated inadequate in their Ofsted inspection. The DfE intervened and agreed that Richmond should be the improvement partner for Kingston. This decision hastened the coming together of the two local authorities and precipitated the decision to establish Achieving for Children. Within 12 months of the decision by the DfE, Achieving for Children had been established and the process was complete.
The initial vision was to establish a community interest company with responsibility for up to five local authority children’s services. There was no expectation that the five local areas should be geographically contiguous, but there was an expectation that there would be some coherence in terms of vision and values. Achieving for Children launched with responsibility for children’s services in Richmond and Kingston. In 2017 it expanded its remit to include children’s services in Windsor and Maidenhead.
The delivery model is one of full integration in senior and middle management across Richmond and Kingston with some locality based frontline services and teams. A single DCS is employed across the two local authorities (Richmond and Kingston) and then seconded into Achieving for Children. Windsor and Maidenhead has a separate DCS. Each council has sovereignty and Achieving for Children reports separately into the three councils.
Under the auspices of Achieving for Children, children’s services in Richmond were judged to be good in 2017 and in 2022, and children’s services in Kingston were judged good in 2015 and outstanding in 2019.
In 2010/11 the planning to create the Tri-borough partnership across Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham began. All three councils were under Conservative leadership and there was a desire to realise savings while preserving capacity at the front line. At the same time Hammersmith and Fulham were judged to be requiring improvement, and it was hoped that the partnership would deliver a unique opportunity to pool talent and share learning.
In 2011 a joint DCS was appointed across all three boroughs and the process started to bring together and integrate some teams and services. The teams identified to lead the way in terms of integration were those where there were clear opportunities to realise economies of scale, such as fostering and adoption, emergency duty, the court service and the youth offending team. However, staff retained their original terms and conditions and there was no TUPE into a single service.
In 2014 a new Labour administration was elected in Hammersmith and Fulham and a political decision was taken to withdraw from the joint leadership arrangements for children’s services, although some specific teams continued to work on a three-borough footprint.
In March 2016 Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea both achieved an Outstanding judgement from Ofsted for their children’s services. The opportunities for learning and sharing practice between the two boroughs were seen as highly instrumental to both local authorities achieving outstanding, and the strengths of the Tri/Bi-borough partnership were referenced in the inspection findings. Hammersmith and Fulham was judged as good – having previously been judged as requiring improvement.
In 2018 the Bi-borough was established, and the two local authorities have continued to work together in partnership with a mixture of integrated and sovereign services. The DCS is a joint appointment, the education and early help services work in an integrated way across the two boroughs and there is a single multi-agency safeguarding hub. In contrast, child protection and children in care are sovereign services, organised on a single borough footprint.
In 2019 Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster became the first two authorities to have achieved and improved outstanding judgements, with both councils achieving outstanding in all categories.
In Dorset a bid was made to become a new Unitary Authority in late 2016. This was a politically and fiscally driven decision to both realise efficiencies which would bring financial security and to benefit from greater national influence. Dorset was the first new Unitary Authority created in 10 years. Dorset was unusual in that it chose to become a brand-new organisation combining district and county powers, and all employees had a new contract. This provided the clean start that the local area had sought. Other areas that had become Unitary Authorities in the recent past had tended to choose a different legal route for doing so (by adding district council powers and responsibilities to the existing county ouncil legal structure) rather than becoming a completely new organisation in legal terms.
The whole change process to become a Unitary Authority took two and a half years, with senior appointments made in December 2018 and day one of the new council on 1 April 2019. The boundaries of the new council differed from that of Dorset County Council and its borough councils – Christchurch was separated from the rest of Dorset and joined the newly formed Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Unitary Authority.
Shortly after achieving Unitary status, Dorset embarked upon a whole scale restructure of their children’s services. The children’s services “blueprint” was co-designed with children and families, and essentially placed the majority of children’s services into four multi-agency, place-based teams incorporating children’s social care, SEND, inclusion, early help and education. A senior manager oversees the teams in each locality as well as taking cross-cutting responsibility across the whole authority for a particular specialism, such as SEND. The service is seeing real benefits from the new structure in terms of closer working relationships between different disciplines and a more agile and speedy response to the needs of families, cutting out the need for multiple referrals. In 2015, children’s services in Dorset was judged to be Requiring Improvement and almost inadequate. It is now good with outstanding leadership.
Hampshire and the Isle of Wight
In 2012 outcomes for children and young people on the Isle of Wight were poor. Less than 50 per cent of schools were good, attendance at schools was very low and children’s social care was failing. By 2013 the children’s social care service had been judged inadequate by Ofsted and the DfE appointed Hampshire local authority, which had been judged consistently good or outstanding since 2007, as the improvement partner for a minimum period of five years.
A single leadership team was created with one director leading both children’s services. Hampshire placed key leaders in the Isle of Wight to stabilise the leadership of the service, and set about diagnosing the issues, clearing the backlog of unallocated cases and putting in place the core systems needed for a secure and safe service.
The children’s services structure is now fully integrated across the Isle of Wight and Hampshire, with all the senior and middle management posts covering the whole of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight part funds (20 per cent) the senior management team of the joint service and has its own place-based front-line teams in the same way as the operational districts in Hampshire. The Isle of Wight benefits from a broader range of specialisms and skills than it could afford if it were a stand-alone entity. Hampshire benefits from being able to expose their managers to different ways of working, providing stretch and interest and contributing to retention. Both local areas benefit from the sharing of ideas and learning across the partnership.
In November 2014 the Isle of Wight was judged, on re-inspection, to have improved to requires improvement, and then in 2018 the service was judged to be Good.
Worcestershire Children First
Worcestershire Children’s Services were the subject of an ‘Inadequate’ Ofsted inspection in October 2016. In September 2017, following a report from the Worcestershire Children’s Commissioner, the Department for Education directed that Worcestershire County Council should move the operational delivery of children’s social care services to an ADM).
In March 2018, Worcestershire County Council approved recommendations for the development of a wholly owned council company as the ADM to deliver children’s social care. As a result, Worcestershire Children First (WCF) was launched as a ‘not for profit’ operationally independent company. During the implementation phase, the original scope of the company was widened, with cabinet approval to include education and early help services, with a vision to create a unified service for children, young people and families in Worcestershire.
In June 2019 a full re-inspection by Ofsted under the new Inspection of Local Authority Children’s Services Framework took place which rated the service as ‘Requires Improvement to be Good.’ This was the first time that an improvement in grade has been achieved by an authority in DfE intervention prior to the launch of a wholly owned company. On 1st October 2019 Worcestershire Children First was launched with staff transferring from Worcestershire County Council to the company.
WCF are committed and determined to improve the lives of children and young people as the company grows and evolves. With teams working closer together, improved communication and co-ordination between services, and all of children’s services sitting within one company, WCF aim to deliver the company’s vision: for Worcestershire to be a wonderful place for all children and young people to grow up.