Fighting for the children

By Ann McGauran | 16 April 2024

The new leader of England’s children’s services chiefs showed his mettle early when he praised moves to crack down on offshore firms providing council-commissioned services.

Incoming president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) Andy Smith welcomed the Children's Homes Association's (CHA) decision to tighten its membership criteria to clamp down on firms based in tax havens. CHA members must now be ultimately owned in the UK. This followed outgoing ADCS president John Pearce's criticism in evidence to the Education Committee last month of 'the growth of super-providers with multiple arms' with 'a scale that enables them to control supply'.

Smith is Derby City Council’s strategic director for people services, encompassing the posts of director of children’s services and director of adult social services, a role he has held since 2016. Before arriving in Derby he worked in Leicester in a range of roles for nearly 20 years.

Speaking to The MJ , Smith reflected on the experiences that have moulded him. A qualified social worker, he is care experienced and was adopted by his foster parents at the age of 10. He told The MJ this ‘definitely shaped me wanting to become a social worker’

There was no kind of ambition, when I was growing up, to be an astronaut – to go off and do something glamorous. I always wanted to be a social worker.

He added: ‘There was no kind of ambition, when I was growing up, to be an astronaut – to go off and do something glamorous. I always wanted to be a social worker. My social worker talked to me about my dreams and aspirations and what I wanted to do with my life. I remember those conversations clearly. It was quite powerful.’

What will he bring to the role, at such a pivotal time politically? ‘I’m trying to bring a sense of optimism to things. It’s very easy to talk about the number of challenges we’ve got. They’re well-rehearsed in relation to children’s services.’

He continued: ‘What’s quite exciting moving forward is that we are expecting a General Election by the end of the year and it does feel as if, whatever the outcome, there’s a real opportunity for the parties to prioritise and position policy around children. And as an association we are going to be pushing various policies forward.’

The ADCS has issued papers recently on inclusive education and on Childhood Matters, which acts as an update to its 2017 policy paper A country that works for all children. The aim of Childhood Matters is to encapsulate the challenges facing children, young people and families, such as poor mental health and poverty and the public services they depend on.

He said the association has put a focus on building relationships with central government. ‘I think we’ve worked really hard, particularly as we’ve emerged out of the pandemic, on developing constructive – and challenging where they need to be – relationships with senior civil servants in government and that’s really helped us influence and shape some of the policy direction. A lot of the children’s social care reforms were shaped through the association.’

The quality of this collaboration has meant ‘a much more dynamic agile conversation that’s not just about going down to London for one hour for one meeting’.

The driving aim behind the Childhood Matters paper is about trying to bring a more cohesive focus on children across government as the General Election approaches. Another priority is ‘about building on what we’ve done over the past 12 months around an inclusive education system for all’.

‘This is about trying to look at how schools can be incentivised to educate children in mainstream settings where it is in their best interests. It’s really trying to set out some of the principles and push for the change that was in the Government’s white paper that was initially launched and then shelved 12-16 months ago.’

The area that concerns him most is SEND. ‘I think the area I’m most worried about is around the SEND system. I think we just need a fundamental relook at the 2014 legislation in terms of some of the challenges and unintended consequences that were clearly outlined in the case for change [in the March 2022 SEND Review] by government, but we just haven’t seen these fully driven forward because we haven’t got a system of education that is inclusive. I think the government are really struggling with this.’

He highlighted the spiralling costs of what he sees as a failed approach. ‘You’ll be aware that we have significant built in costs in the system. I think the high needs block that pays for special needs, in 2025 is heading for something like a £3.6bn overspend across the country. It’s significant, and it’s something we must try to focus on going forward.’

Smith pointed to the progress being made on the Government’s Stable Homes Built on Love vision for the reform of children’s social care, including the implementation of front-line child protection practice through the Families First for Children Pathfinder.

The pilot pathfinders will look at how the multi-agency operating model of having highly skilled practitioners from councils, police and health working as a team with responsibility for delivering specific child protection functions is working on the ground.

‘The optimistic bit is there is some really good stuff in there. We need to drive it forwards, we need to get the pilots out of the way and see where that takes us. Get things rolled out at scale. The worry is we can’t take our foot off the gas.’

We’ve been giving a lot of reflection as an association recently on inspection, its impact, whether or not it’s proportionate and the impact it has across the system, across workforce and across individual leaders.

On accountability, inspectorate and regulator Ofsted has increasingly come under scrutiny following the death of teacher Ruth Perry. The body has recently launched a survey – The Big Listen – to ask how it can improve how it works. Smith said the ADCS ‘really want to understand the future of inspection and the impact inspection has on the ground’.

He added: ‘We’ve been giving a lot of reflection as an association recently on inspection, its impact, whether or not it’s proportionate and the impact it has across the system, across workforce and across individual leaders. And this ties in nicely with what Ofsted has just launched.

There’s something about fundamentally just rethinking what the purpose of inspection is. It’s not that we shouldn’t be held to account. But it’s about trying to understand how that happens – and whether or not our children are better off as a result of inspection is the question.’

In terms of other pressing issues facing his membership, what is his take on whether ministers should be pressurised to enforce a mandated National Transfer Scheme (NTS) for asylum-seeking children? His answer hangs on his view that a lack of engagement by councils is not at the root of the problem.

‘I think the ADCS has been quite clear that the NTS as it was set up is not fit for purpose. There is a review well under way now.

‘But there is a recognition from government that the NTS as it was envisaged is just not working. The significant challenge is around the sufficiency of suitable and available placements. It isn’t through the lack of will or determination from councils and from directors of children’s services to engage with the NTS.’

He underlined that the fundamental problem lying at the heart of the issue is a lack of placements for all children across the system. ‘I think the challenge really, which is broader than unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, but does include migrant children, is in relation to having a properly resourced plan to tackle placement sufficiency and the placement sufficiency crisis we’ve got in relation to children and young people in care. And migrant children is one element of that.’

He is pushing hard for this to change. ‘I’ve been involved in a number of conversations with the Home Office and the Department for Education about particular challenges around migrant children and placement sufficiency.’

Things are moving in the right direction, he concluded. ‘But it is still a significant challenge and some of that has been compounded by the NTS. I remain optimistic. You have to be in this job, don’t you?’

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