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A social care leader’s perspective

The narrative around children’s social care has, in recent years, been both negative and counterproductive. Headline after headline has been laced with failings and bad practice, particularly concerning the private sector, where the lion’s share of the blame is often placed.

There’s little doubt that improvements can, and should, be made to the sector. Independent reviews and inquiry report findings say as much, and point to reforms in areas such as safeguarding, information sharing, and cross-agency working. But the need for reform and improvement does not mean the industry is entirely broken. By its very nature, children’s social care will always have a certain degree of risk. But, when you look at the sector as a whole, it is built on solid foundations, with an army of people – whether public or private sector – who act as passionate advocates for the young people they care for.

There has, and will continue to be, fervent debate about what those reforms should look like. But, as we enter a period of political change, the identity of the minister charged with implementing those recommendations could well change. While the political cogs continue to slowly turn, we spoke to those people on the ground, dealing with the real issues and concerns in a sector that often fails to get the credit it deserves. Leaders from across the Tristone business community have been talking candidly about what will actually make a lasting change in the sector, while also shining a light on the positives about children’s social care, which rarely make the final edit.

Daryl Holkham, Director of Operational Corporate Governance at Tristone Healthcare

“The only constant in social care is change. This feels like an eternal maxim, and heightened demand for change in the residential care of children has accelerated in recent months.  So, what will forge lasting change in the children’s homes sector? A simple question perhaps, but there is no simple solution.

“Josh MacAlister’s Independent Review of Social Care has highlighted some important key drivers for change. The recommendations make sense and, if collectively implemented, they will doubtless have a positive and lasting impact. However, barriers to change are multi-faceted and enduring. For example, we have a regulatory system that is said to focus upon the process of care, and less so upon the experiences and outcomes of children in care. This was recognised within MacAlister’s report, and one that was contested by Ofsted and subsequently countered by local authorities and providers alike.  Almost immediately, we are presented with a roadblock. There is a discontinuity between the defining principles of the regulator and the experiences of the regulated. 

“This is only a small part of a wider landscape of inconsistency that will – at best – rupture the process of lasting change that is both meaningful and effective. 

“What does this mean for the implementation of lasting change? There is no doubt that the change required must focus upon factors that will make a real difference to the experiences and outcomes of children. This must be built upon the principles of effective child-centred care that is delivered through joined-up working, transparency, accountability, and a culture of learning that extends beyond the successes and failures of individual settings towards root and branch reform.  The emphasis must be upon reform that will impact upon all agencies involved in the care and support of vulnerable children.

“The starting point must focus upon the need to break down barriers to change. This means accepting that things are not as they should or indeed can be. In global terms this is given, but time and time again individual professionals use blame and scapegoating to protect themselves and/or their organisations in both the public and private sectors. Presently, private providers of children’s homes are in the firing line, but the reality is that both the public and private sector have children’s homes that fall way below even basic expectations of good practice.  

“The media frenzy around seeking out the unscrupulous forges a blinkered public perception that amplifies the challenges presented. To afford positive, meaningful change we need to look at not only what can be improved, but also what works and importantly, how, and why it works. Improvement is driven by shared learning, shared commitments, and effective joined-up working. Things will go wrong from time to time, but the emphasis must be upon solutions and not limited to blame.

“So, what is the one thing that will make lasting change to the sector? There is no single all-embracing solution, but there is a starting point. Lasting change will come about by breaking down barriers to change. It is about forging a universal culture of consistency, openness, and transparency. It involves learning that takes full account of failings and successes, as well as sharing that learning to be better meets the individual needs of vulnerable children. It must be supportively administered, reflectively engineered, and implemented collectively by the private and public sector, as well as the regulator. And finally, it must involve all those whose motivations must be firmly rooted in achieving the best outcomes for our children, from frontline practice to board level oversight.”

Alison Moore, Managing Director of Juventas Services

“The care sector often receives criticism for failings surrounding children in care and there are many parts of the sector that remain unspoken, often these are the positives and outcomes. Working within a small organisation ensures that as the Managing Director, and alongside my senior management team, I am involved with all decisions around the care provided to each child at Juventas; each child is known by name and the full business has an understanding of their needs. There are many reasons why we are successful and why we are already ahead of ‘the system’.

“Our size supports direct decision-making and exceptional communication from operational teams direct to the senior management team. When larger organisations grow, they build in additional layers, and this dilutes communication and direct ownership and decision-making abilities. However, when organisations are smaller, the quality of care is greater due to each child being known individually. Furthermore, our homes are beautiful and simulate a typical family home, which normalises the environment each child lives in.”

This is demonstrated in a Children’s Commissioner report, where some children felt strongly that private homes provided a more pleasant and nurturing environment. This seemed partly down to the ability to invest in “homely furniture and stuff”, but also down to mindset. As one young person said: “a private home has a lot more of a homely feel to it, which makes a massive difference especially when you’re developing.”

Alison continues: “The million-dollar question….. lasting change to the sector! For me, there is a small but simple solution. The system/sector requires greater enthusiasm on recording meaningful outcomes. This would be one system that all organisations and sectors feed in to, regardless of private, public or charity status.

An outcome-focused mindset would assist profit-driven organisations to refocus and align to the meaningful outcomes being created by organisations such as ours. I also believe that there should be a cap placed on organisations (as a whole) to stop them growing beyond a certain amount of homes – this tackles care dilution and communication barriers. 

“One thing that would add real value is greater engagement between the Children’s Commissioner and the sector to help shape proposals for the improvement of children’s homes. By seeking the views of those people who are working on the ground, by looking at this from the grass roots up, and gathering factual information, we can create lasting change.”

Danielle Piller, Managing Director of Sportfit Support Services

“We predominantly work in Post-16 supported accommodation, although we have just opened our first children’s home last month.

“One of the biggest changes coming up in the sector next year is the regulation of Post-16 support by Ofsted – to date, our sector has been unregulated.

“Not only will it remove the misconception that unregulated in some ways means “illegal”, but it will also ensure that those providers that don’t provide the quality of care and support to young people (something that’s so integral to how Sportfit operates), are weeded out of the system. It’s about ensuring that our young people are placed in the right provision at the right time.

“Obviously, another factor that would hugely impact the care sector is investment in people. Recruitment is a real issue for the sector at present. Investment must be channelled into highlighting the positives that come from working in a role in social care, together with the lasting impact you can make on a young person’s life and the career opportunities available.

“On what makes the sector good – there are very few jobs that offer such variation, from going through a challenging day because you’ve been supporting a young person who is going through trauma, to one of your young people finding employment for the first time, or even passing one of their GCSEs, as we’ve recently experienced. It really does provide above and beyond ‘job satisfaction’, because it’s all about people, emotion and lives.”