Birmingham, Now is the Time for Radical Change | The MJ

Birmingham City Council’s decision to consider spinning out its children’s services in pursuit of safer, happier lives for its most vulnerable children is bold, but I believe that this alone will not be enough to guarantee radical change in children’s lives.

The news last week on Birmingham City Council’s decision was followed by a shocking Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, which highlighted exactly why major change is needed to improve vulnerable children’s lives.

Having worked with public service providers across the globe, we understand that organisational structures can constrain innovation in public services and that new structures alone cannot effect transformation.

That’s why I believe that the children of Birmingham, who rely on these services, deserve an even bolder solution.

Birmingham City Council has described their move as ‘the next logical step on our improvement journey. It is now time to consider a model that has social workers at its centre.’ This focus on social work is positive, but it is not holistic enough.

Innovation Unit is part of Spring Consortium, delivering the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme on behalf of the Department for Education.

This work with ambitious providers of children’s social care shows that while high quality, highly motivated social workers are important, they are only part of the answer. If the trust’s future vision is founded on this alone, improvement will be possible, but transformation will remain out of reach.

Positive, consistent and sustained relationships are crucial for children in or on the edge of care. Yet children’s social care systems often revolve around one relationship - that of the child and their social worker.

Foster carers, youth workers, teachers, birth families, friends and kinship carers (and many others) play fundamental roles in children’s lives. Opportunities to strengthen and make the most of these relationships are often missed.

As local authorities around the UK are demonstrating, opening up the traditional model of social work to mixed teams creates powerful new ways to help strengthen families and avoid crisis. Crucially, these teams also free up social workers to spend time with the children and families with most complex needs.

I am inspired by Ealing’s Brighter Futures programme, which is building the confidence of foster carers with support from teams of social workers, youth workers, youth justice workers and teachers.

Meanwhile, North Yorkshire has developed No Wrong Door, which gives adolescents in or on the edge of care access to a wide range of support to meet their needs in one place.

Another powerful innovation is Hackney’s Pause, which creates bespoke packages of support from housing to addiction treatment for women who have had their children repeatedly removed - and is spreading the model to seven more local authorities.

Over in Leeds, the Family Valued programme, is creating packages of support to extended family and kinship carers, working alongside families to prevent children being taken into care. It is experimenting with replacing Initial Child Protection Conferences with Family Group Conferences, so that families can make decisions, mend relationships and drive change for themselves. The model is built on 25 local ‘clusters’ across the city, each of which draws together schools, social work, police, youth services, housing and local elected members to respond to local needs.

Birmingham’s trust creates an opportunity to redefine the vision, leadership, culture, workforce and practice of children’s services - and to have a profound and positive impact on the lives of children and families. It must seize the moment to gather new perspectives on the challenges faced by children, families and professionals, and to place at its centre a collaboration between whole families, communities, social workers and other local services.

To say this is a huge challenge is an understatement, but I believe this is crucial for the future of many of the children who are supported by Birmingham’s services.

Other local authorities and trusts around the country are already taking bold steps in this direction, and as these examples show, it is not their structural form alone that defines the true innovators.

First published 2nd June 2016
Sarah Gillinson is Managing Partner at Innovation Unit