Three trailblazer councils to pilot MacAlister’s ‘families first’ plan

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Council leaders share early proposals on delivery of the government’s Families First for Children scheme designed to ‘test new ways to reform every part of children’s social care’ in response to the Care Review.

The Department for Education has chosen three local authorities to pilot the initial stage of its Families First for Children (FFC) programme, designed in response to recommendations made in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.

Wolverhampton, Dorset and Lincolnshire will take part in the FFC pilot (see box), designed to “test new ways to reform every part of the children’s social care system, helping children to stay with their families in safe and loving homes, whilst protecting vulnerable children where needed”.

Backed by just under £40m in funding, it will trial a move towards locally based, multi-disciplinary family help services and a shift towards the government’s aim to “keep families together”, shared in Stable Homes, Built On Love, its response to Care Review chair Josh MacAlister’s final report. Ministers aim to meet this goal through an increased use of family-based early intervention techniques including the appointment of a child protection social worker and plans to strengthen data sharing among partner agencies in a drive towards improving safeguarding partnerships as well as a greater focus on kinship care.

As they enter the early stages of development for the pilot, council leaders share their plans, hopes and reservations for the pathfinder scheme which has previously raised questions over a perceived lack of funding to expand learning past March 2025, when the trial is planned to come to an end.

Selection process

The three local authorities taking part in the first phase of the pilot – a second is expected to begin next spring – were approached by DfE, explains Emma Bennett, executive director of families at Wolverhampton Council.

She says: “We were one of the 12 deep dive areas that Josh MacAlister looked at when he was undertaking his independent review so the DfE is already aware of our local challenges as well as the outcomes we are already delivering.”

In its last full inspection, carried out in March and April last year, Wolverhampton was rated “good” overall and the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families at the council was graded “outstanding”.

In their report, inspectors state: “Pre-proceedings work is supported by skilled in-house Parent Assessment Manual assessors, promptly commissioned cognitive assessments and family group conferences, resulting in a significant number of children remaining with their family.

“Where concerns continue to escalate, early permanence is achieved for most children through timely care proceedings that have been fully informed by the completion of strong assessments in pre-proceedings.”

Meanwhile, Paul Dempsey, corporate director of care and protection for Dorset County Council, says “some of the conditions for success for the pathfinder are already present in Dorset”.

“The DfE can see that we have a locality model that’s got multi-disciplinary professionals in, similar to the model proposed in the strategy,” he explains.

Dorset’s most recent Ofsted grading from an inspection in 2021 mirrors that of Wolverhampton with an overall rating of “good”, uplifted to “outstanding” for “the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families”. Lincolnshire, the third local authority picked for the pilot, is also rated as “outstanding” in this area as well as overall.

During its latest inspection in April this year, Lincolnshire was lauded for its edge of care work, with inspectors reporting: “A range of edge of care services, including Futures4Me, support children and families to make positive changes in their lives, resulting in some children being able to remain with their parents happily and safely.”

Building foundations

Both Bennett and Dempsey say their local authorities are working with DfE to design pilots tailored to the needs of children and families in their areas, with plans to implement the pathfinder models early next year.

Bennett says that September and October will signal a “co-design period” during which the council will “scope out what will be required to test out the new model and how that will fit into our local area”.

Meanwhile, Dorset has appointed James Boxer as programme director for the pilot to support Dempsey and the council’s director of children’s services Theresa Leavy in working with the government and children and families to build a locally tailored model.

Boxer explains: “We’re meeting with an exhaustive list of people across the partnership including policing, health, the voluntary sector and people with lived experience to make sure we’ve got everybody on board, and we know the best possible outcomes before we start the designing process.”

Dempsey adds: “We make much more progress when we’re working as a partnership so working with families, rather than doing to or doing for them, already is our model in Dorset. Talking to families about how best we can support them and how best we can set ourselves up for this pilot is really important.”

Structural changes

Bennett admits that as the pilot is in its infancy, having only been announced in June, her local authority is yet to settle on an internal structure for it, with Dempsey and Boxer echoing the sentiment.

However, senior staff across both local authorities are relishing the challenges and possibilities the pilot could bring.

She says: “It’s a real opportunity for us to shape national policy. We’re really excited about the opportunities around how we might use kinship carers more flexibly to really try and support children and young people to remain with their families and extended families.

“From a workforce perspective, we’ve got some real opportunities to think about the broader challenges we’ve got around the social care workforce and how we can use this to both support and address that some of those.”

Dempsey also praises the “key pillars” of the strategy, particularly “increasing the support of wider family networks” through expanding the role of kinship care and a greater use of interventions like family group conferences.

He also highlights opportunities open to social workers through the programme including the implementation of the specialist child protection role.

“People here are really ambitious for children and families and really open to innovative work that is going to improve outcomes for them, so the staff are really pleased that we’ve been chosen and have an opportunity to make these improvements now,” adds Dempsey.

Costed plans

Boxer adds that while funding has not yet been specifically allocated to local authorities involved in the pilot, the DfE has asked those taking part to submit a costed plan based on how they think their delivery will look.

Louise Gittins, chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Children and Young People’s Board, says a full evaluation of such plans must be carried out to establish the cost benefit of the pilot.

She explains: “It will be helpful to understand from the pathfinder authorities whether the investment offered was enough to meet the pathfinder’s aims, including whether it has enabled sustainable improvement.”

Reflecting on the £37.2m set aside for FFC pilot, Dempsey says: “It’s a good start. I’m not sure that we’ll be able to do everything we want to do.”

He goes on to warn that without adequate funding local authorities not involved in the pilots, particularly those struggling to improve children’s services, may face greater challenges in rolling out the strategy, if needed, at a similar level to those chosen to take part in the pathfinder.

“Other local authorities may be somewhere different in terms of both conditions and funding so in terms of a national roll out, having sufficient funding to make this work is really important across the country,” he says.

John Peace, director of children’s services at Durham County Council and president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services – which is supporting pathfinder authorities – shares this concern, saying: “We continue to need a long-term equitable funding solution for children’s services so that all children and families can thrive, wherever they live.”

Gittins adds: “It is also really important that the councils chosen to be pathfinders are varied including in terms of levels of deprivation, rurality and existing practice so that we can learn what is needed to deliver change in a range of circumstances and from a range of starting points.”

Funding concerns

Gittins describes the launch of the pilots as “a helpful step forward” in reforming children’s social care but adds that the LGA “remains concerned” that the funding put forward by government falls far short of the £2.6bn to reform children’s social care called for by MacAlister in his final report.

“The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care calculated that around £2bn was required to build a new, high-quality family help system alongside another £23m to invest in family networks. Successfully extending the FFC initiative would need significant investment far beyond the £200m invested to date in children’s social care reform,” she says.

While individuals leading the pathfinders remain optimistic about the benefits of the scheme for children and families in their locality, a lot of work lies ahead to get the first wave of the FFC pilot up and running and ultimately establish the impact of the reforms on children and families across all local authorities.

CARE REVIEW PILOTS KEY POINTS

Dorset, Lincolnshire and Wolverhampton councils will be the first to deliver the Families First for Children (FFC) programme.

Local authorities taking part will see the introduction of family network support packages (FNSPs) to remove any financial or practical barriers faced by families accessing services.

FFC pilots will run until March 2025.

A second wave of local areas piloting the programme is expected to launch in spring 2024.

Four local authorities – Brighton and Hove, Sunderland, Gateshead and Telford and Wrekin – have also been chosen to test a family networks pilot, backed by £7.8m of funding.

The pilot will prioritise family-led solutions by increasing the use of family group decision-making and testing the introduction of FNSPs.

While the impact of FNSPs will be looked at through the FFC, a standalone pilot is being run to “understand the impact of this policy in isolation”, according to the DfE.

Staffordshire, Hartlepool and Hammersmith and Fulham are also expected to take part in a second wave of the family networks pilot next spring.

Public services delivery organisation Mutual Ventures, alongside social enterprise Innovation Unit, have been named as delivery partners for the pathfinders.


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