Privatisation is not the answer for failing children’s services

If ever there was a mean-spirited gaffe made during the festive season it was Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent attack on children’s social services. An exploding yuletide log for social workers, no less. Moreover, it was a direct assault on a profession I have a huge empathy with and respect for.

Given his background in public relations – and the fact that he has a huge publicity machine working for him around the clock – it’s amazing Cameron could make such a public assault without having a modicum of information on how he intends to put things right.

In his declaration, Cameron said local authorities that fail persistently to look after vulnerable children would be taken over by independent trusts. However, there was no suggestion that cuts in council budgets and police services had anything to do with these supposed institutional failures or, indeed, how his new independent trusts would work.

I share Cameron’s frustration with the poor delivery by some local authorities to the most vulnerable in society, but I am at a loss as to where he thinks all the independent professionals and experts are who will deliver these critical services.

I work with my multi-disciplinary associates in that independent private sector supporting children’s services, police forces and health colleagues. So does my company have capacity or the experienced people in the wings to underwrite his suggested changes? No, is the answer.

It’s more likely that Cameron’s declaration is the latest salvo in Tory plans to privatise everything. The big issue here is that there needs to be a sensible, grown up conversation about whether it’s viable and, indeed, correct to threaten such a privatisation of public services. One could argue that Cameron’s government has done absolutely nothing to help vulnerable children in this parliament or during the last one.

My professional life now takes me right across the children’s sectors in the UK and if you are reading this Mr Cameron I need to tell you that what you are threatening is not going to happen. Not because it is a flawed idea (which it might be or not), but because the independent experts – the metaphorical cavalry charging to the rescue – don’t exist.

The frustration with poor professional practice and leadership is one I share, but the solution needs to be at least achievable. If it isn’t, it carries no credibility and therefore challenges nothing and no one.

The standards of social work and partnership practice, including service leadership, I see and examine across the country is very variable given the enormous pressures on services and the people that run them. I make no excuses for it. My vision and passion is to be able to uplift and sustain practice across the professions through new innovative and integrated working practices.

The real solution lies not in wholesale takeovers and pseudo privatisation, but in professional practice change and innovation across not just social work but all safeguarding partners. The time for doing what we have always done is past. The concept of working together in partnership is no longer going to solve the structural and conceptual barriers that are getting in the way of strong innovative working in an integrated partnership fashion.

Social work does not deliver alone and many of the problems in the modern era have been caused because of this outmoded belief system and the silos it created. They need their safeguarding partners to support and deliver excellent practice and challenge. The change therefore needs to be systemic, not an attack on one part of the problem.

Cameron created a task force in spring 2015 with terms of reference designed to drive a conversation in three parts to improve child protection services. I wholeheartedly welcomed it, but have heard nothing at all during the year and the silence is deafening as we enter 2016. We need radical ideas and thinking to shape future integrated services and a new style of leadership that can deliver the quality services our children deserve.

So my message to the prime minister and those in political power is lets get on and have the big conversation about how we deliver integrated services of excellence everywhere and not make unachievable threats to one part of a system. Threatening to do things you cannot carry out undermines everything professionals are trying to achieve. It also gives those who don’t care about uplifting practice across the public sector somewhere to hide, because they know the threat of change is hollow.

If anyone knows of any progress in relation to the task force please let me know. I will tweet it immediately as breaking news!