An uphill climb to consummate care

29th September 2006 at 01:00
Thirty-five pathfinder councils have been involved in the pilot scheme to set up integrated children's services. Phil Revell reports on their success so far

In the wake of the 2004 Children Act, ministers promised that by 2008 every local authority would have an integrated system of services for children, led by a director of children's services and co-ordinated by a children's trust.

Thirty-five local authorities were involved in piloting the new arrangements, and most have now been inspected under the joint area review process (see box).

A few of these pathfinder councils, including West Sussex and Newham, east London, were given a clean bill of health. Others, including Sandwell, were castigated for the inadequacy of their children's services. Even model authorities, such as Telford and Wrekin, in Shropshire, did not escape without criticism.

Telford is often cited as a template for children's services. It has a children's trust, and a new full-service extended school opened this term.

The authority has also been a pioneer in investigating the sharing of information.

Much of this was recognised in Ofsted's report. But in common with many other areas, Telford's provision for children who were either in care or not in school was criticised. The inspectors also complained that the local authority "did not demonstrate a complete understanding of areas of weakness".

There are important lessons for others attempting to follow the pilots and build a children's services network, not least that partnership working takes time.

In West Sussex, for example, several years of planning and negotiation are just starting to have concrete results.

The county is a beacon council for children's services and a joint area inspection last year was largely positive. Sussex is hardly inner-city, but there are the ubiquitous "pockets of deprivation", including Littlehampton, where the county established a "hub" of services earlier this year. Schools are a vital part of the system.

"Sixty per cent of our referrals come from schools," says Sue Berelowitz, head of partnerships at the West Sussex children's trust. Those referrals, which might relate to anything from child abuse to teenage tantrums, go through a common assessment system to the hub, an anonymous-looking office on a Littlehampton estate.

Esther Smyrl is the team leader at the hub. She might pass on that referral to a school nurse, a mental health worker or a social worker with responsibility for child protection.

The aim is to have every case allocated to someone, and the family or child contacted - all within a few days. Creating this system has involved lengthy discussion among a whole range of professionals.

"It's about culture and relationships," she says. "There are very different skills and ways of working. Some problems are very practical, such as the way different professionals use IT."

Littlehampton's headteachers do feel that the hub has the potential to make a huge difference.

"There is personal access to people that we know - I can drive or walk around and speak to someone straight away," says Dave Vickers, head of Littlehampton's Flora MacDonald junior school.

"So often in infant schools, we can identify families and children who have some kind of need or problem - we didn't always know where to refer them,"

says Thursa Jego, head of Elm Grove infants school.

"Our educational welfare office and educational psychologist now work through the hub. Sometimes it's only when the professionals come together that you understand why things have happened."

Children's trusts are not just about working together. The Government wants to see joint commissioning of services and shared resources among children's agencies.

Littlehampton's heads wouldlike to see improved provision for children's mental health, an issue raised in the joint area review. The new arrangements make that possible, but at a cost.

"We have been offered a primary mental health worker, but it will cost us pound;47,000 a year," says Mr Vickers.

With the costs shared between the area's 13 schools, that isn't a lot of money to find, but that, argues Thursa Jego, is not the point.

"We look at each opportunity, but if we feel it is not appropriate for the funding to come from education we say 'no'," she says. "You have to be careful. You could easily fall into that trap, thinking that you were acting in the best interests of the children."

Earlier this year, the National Association of Head Teachers reported that schools were being expected to shoulder more than their fair share of the cost of the Every Child Matters agenda, a concern echoed by Mr Vickers.

"In our budgets now, we have money for Every Child Matters and for personalised learning," he says. "If you look at how that money is supposed to be spent, it is on supporting children and families, but the sum of money I have coming into my school for ECM would not pay for a single after-school club."

Getting used to the new arrangements will also take some time. Headteachers often faced lengthy delays under the old system, and sometimes didn't refer a problem, preferring to look for an in-school solution.

"Our advice to schools is, 'Don't worry about a problem - refer,'" says Ms Berelowitz. "We are still not getting sufficient referrals."

Asked why the process is taking so long, Ms Berelowitz points to the considerable amount of work involved and to the progress so far. The hub is in place. Littlehampton has a children's centre, with a 50-place nursery and a creche. There are more and better services for families, and many schools are running extended services.

"Yes, it is slow, but it's important to take the time to build the relationships," she says.

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