The quarterly meeting of Staffordshire’s safeguarding children board used to be an unwieldy affair, with anything up to 35 people in attendance. ‘It was not pro-active in holding everyone to account,’ says Mark Sutton, the council’s cabinet member for children and young people.
Since early 2019, things have become more streamlined. Key decisions are made by an executive of four, including the directors of children’s services from Stoke as well as Staffordshire, along with the assistant chief constable for Staffordshire and a representative of local clinical commissioning groups (CCGs).
The restructuring is good news for the police, which no longer need to attend board meetings in both local authorities. It also follows an instruction from Government for councils in England to scrap safeguarding children boards and focus on the three main players in child protection - councils, the police and health.
Mr Sutton stresses that other organisations are not being overlooked and have their say via partnership groups that report to the executive. There is particularly close liaison with schools through head teacher forums. But the important thing is not structure, but what can be done to ensure the well-being of children in the home and wider community. ‘We wanted more emphasis on prevention and early intervention,’ he says. Local safeguarding children boards (LCSBs) were created by the 2004 Children Act, following the Victoria Climbie case, and calls for better child protection. Each board covered a single local authority and had an independent chair.
Two years ago, the Wood Review led to the Children and Social Work Act, with the Government inviting councils to come up with better multi-agency arrangements. These must be in place by the end of this month [Sept]. Collaboration between local authorities is a feature of some, but not all, of the new partnerships. Six councils are working together in Tyne and Wear while eight in north London are liaising on child death reviews (carried out when a child dies).
Reading, West Berkshire and Wokingham have formed a safeguarding partnership that ties in with Berkshire West CCG and Thames Valley Police. In addition to the merged board, which began operating in 2018, three independent scrutiny groups (one for each local authority) challenge each other to deliver better results.
Liz Stead, head of safeguarding children at the CCG, says the new arrangements are more suited to the risks now facing children, including child sexual exploitation and problems posed by social media. While there have been some ‘difficult conversations’, everyone is committed to more scrutiny and accountability, she adds. ‘We need to pick things apart so that we can assure children and families that we’re doing the best we can.’
Jenny Coles, vice president of the Association and Directors of Children’s Services, says the new arrangements focus more on learning as well as scrutiny, with each of the main partners enjoying equal status. ‘In the past there was a feeling that local authorities could stand alone,’ she says. In Hertfordshire, where Ms Coles is director of children’s services, the council set up a safeguarding partnership with an executive board and learning hubs to cover the main issues facing practitioners. These include emotional health and well-being, youth violence and neglect.
The chair of the former LSCB is an independent scrutineer, charged with looking at individual areas of practice. Schools are closely involved, particularly in areas such as child sexual exploitation, while families are consulted more on domestic violence. ‘It’s about involving young people and hearing the families’ voice,’ she adds.
The replacement of LCSBs with new partnerships coincides with the creation of a national child safeguarding practice review panel, which looks at major cases.
In Birmingham, the new safeguarding partnership worked with 13 other authorities to produce regional guidance for safeguarding practice reviews, carried out when a child dies or suffers a life-changing injury due to suspected abuse.
Local partners must decide within 15 working days whether there should be a local review or if the case is serious enough for the national panel. ‘It’s not about a blame culture,’ says Simon Cross, the partnership’s business manager. ‘It’s about what we learn from it.’
Previously, Birmingham’s LCSB had about 45 members. ‘If you’re not careful, you have meetings the size of seminars,’ adds Mr Cross. Now there is an executive of 15, with each meeting jointly chaired by the city council, West Midlands Police and Birmingham and Solihull CCG
Last year, the National Children’s Bureau set up an ‘early adopters’ programme on behalf of the government, covering a total of 39 councils. Dan Martin, principal officer for social care at the NCB, says these came up with a range of solutions to suit their area.
Councils not involved in the programme, but which must still have new arrangements in place by October, can now see what is working elsewhere. ‘It’s possible that we will see more alignment over the next 18 months as areas see what others are doing,’ he says.
In Tyne and Wear, six councils are forming a regional partnership based on the area covered by Northumbria Police. But, says Cathy McEvoy-Carr, director of children’s services in Northumberland, each authority will still a keep close eye on operational issues locally. ‘You will always need local arrangements that consider issues and trends,’ she says. ‘The strength in having the partnership is that we can learn from one another.’
It is being left up to local areas to decide how the new partnerships are funded, and to what extent councils continue to foot most of the bill. Areas can select the other partners involved, though they are expected to work with schools, the voluntary sector and faith groups.
Emma Ford, head of safeguarding in Salford, welcomes the flexibility available to utilise external partners and is keen to consult the community. During the next year, a project is aiming to discover more about life for young people in Salford and how well services are working. ‘If we can go to the community so that it tells us our priorities and owns our priorities, it will tell us how much safer the community should be,’ she says.