Tough times lie ahead, but the sector can carry forward lessons learned from working under pandemic conditions, says Jenny Coles, the incoming president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services

“I’m used to working in smart ways, but this has been challenging,” admits Jenny Coles, the new president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services [ADCS], as she chats to Community Care from her home while dogs yap deafeningly in the background.

Coles, the director of children’s services at Hertfordshire council, took over from predecessor Rachel Dickinson at the start of April, days after the country was placed into coronavirus lockdown, sending departments scrambling to adjust their practices to unprecedented times.

Coming into her presidency, Coles has faced the added task of making her mark on the new role without interacting with others in person. Her inaugural address was delivered yesterday via PDF – including a sprinkling of all-caps sections for emphasis – rather than lectern, while key meetings, as they have been for most people, have been conducted via video or audio call.

“It’s getting over your personality, making sure you’re getting the points of the association over when sometimes you can’t see people – though it’s been the same for everyone, which has been helpful in some ways,” she says. “But that’s not taken away the privilege of representing peers and colleagues, even if it’s a bit daunting.”

‘Amazing’ response

Coles entered children’s social work in 1986, in Luton, after a spell working in an adolescent residential unit lured her away from a planned career in teaching. The profession is rarely short of fresh and taxing puzzles, she points out.

“If you’ve worked in children’s services for even a short time you know it’s challenging, but with real highs,” she says. “I would never have chosen another field – every day, even if it’s a challenge, is about finding solutions.

“Talking to colleagues, that’s been good preparation for people on the frontline [adapting to working in a pandemic], having to look at different ways of engaging with families or children they work with,” she goes on. “But I can’t say we’ve ever had to do anything like this before.”

In terms of how children’s services have responded to Covid-19, Coles says she’s found it “amazing” how quickly social workers and the families they work with have reshaped their contacts around WhatsApp and Zoom, and how team working has adapted.

She acknowledges that, given pre-existing disparities between digital capabilities, some employers have found making changes trickier than others. But, Coles adds, it will be important, months from now, that thorough reviews are carried out to identify where necessity-driven new ways of working have actually ended up improving how relationships function between social workers and families.

Guidance controversy

Most initial shifts in practice were made in the absence of national guidance, which, along with the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been at the heart of social workers’ concerns about practice during coronavirus.

When the Department for Education (DfE) did issue advice in early April, it drew criticism for giving councils latitude to depart from statutory duties, without specifying under what circumstances they might do so.

Coles says the consensus within ADCS is that the DfE mostly did as well as it could have in the circumstances. “ADCS were part of discussions and were keen to get as much clarity as possible, but also to have local discretion within the statutory guidance,” she says.

But she says the association will be “continually” asking the DfE, with which it speaks weekly, to review what it puts out.

“We are representing concerns and issues coming from our members,” Coles says. “We have been doing that on PPE [another area around which the guidance was criticised, for understating the extent of social workers’ needs] – even though we need less than adults’ services, we absolutely do need it in [some] settings.”

‘Difficult balance’

What would be most useful for councils, in terms of further guidance? Coles says many would appreciate additional clarity about how far bread-and-butter child protection activity, such as visits and core group meetings, can deviate from standard practice in response to local circumstances while still fulfilling duties.

“One thing that would be helpful [would be to clarify] what constitutes a statutory visit in this time,” for instance, under what circumstances virtual visits will suffice, Coles says by way of example.

“It’s a difficult balance, because statutory responsibilities must remain, but it’s finding acceptable ways of [meeting them] and being able to judge, with families who do not always feel they need to co-operate, and making sure children are safe in those circumstances,” she says.

“Councils will get on and do things for themselves, and what we wouldn’t want, after all this, is to come back and that not to be seen as adequate,” she adds. “We don’t want to have blame on social workers and children’s social care teams for taking the best [approach] they could in difficult times.”

It’s likely that where the lines of acceptability lie will be subject to continuing argument. In the wake of Community Care’s conversation with Coles, the government published a new statutory instrument relaxing a range of duties relating to children in care from today – leading to charges that it is “destroying” safeguards. But as with the Care Act ‘easements’ provided to adult social care departments, the extent to which children’s services’ behaviour alters will only become apparent over the coming weeks and months.

Looming referrals spike

What seems more certain for children’s social workers, though, is that their jobs are only likely to become tougher as the pandemic progresses, Coles warns. Already there have been headlines about the rising incidence of domestic abuse – listed by Coles as a priority focus during her tenure – under lockdown conditions.

“It’s rightly receiving a national focus – in my area and most others, there has been increased contact with [services around] domestic abuse,” she says, adding that she is “really worried” about the potential impact on children. “The important thing is to continue getting information to the public, not only for victims, but also for others in communities so that if they feel something is wrong they can at least phone a helplines for assistance.”

While those contacts have increased, overall referrals into children’s services have fallen sharply across the country, driven by children’s relative lack of visibility owing to school closures and other service disruption. Coles has repeatedly mentioned falls of 50%, including in her own county.

Meanwhile pressures on many families will have increased, fuelled not only by home confinement but by the influx of new claimants into an often cruelly unreliable benefits system.

“Referrals will come back when restrictions start to lift, and schools go back,” Coles says. Local authorities are planning for the inevitable “huge spike”, she adds, by drawing on the national scheme that enables recently deregistered social workers to offer their services, by redeploying staff within their own services and by monitoring data with partners.

Care review delay

Coles says she’s been heartened to see that, in the East of England region of which Hertfordshire is part, the wider children’s social care workforce has mostly been depleted less than had been feared – including within children’s homes. But that could change rapidly, she warns.

“The residential care workforce is really an area to watch,” Coles says. “This is an area we are already concerned about, and which this situation is not going to assist – and that goes for fostering as well.”

Prior to the impact of coronavirus, of course, the new Conservative administration’s promised review of the care system was at the forefront of minds across the children’s services sector. As and when some semblance of normality resumes, Coles insists, the review must return to that position of prominence.

“It’s important not to rush this review, that it is broad and looks not just at young people in care and their journey through it, but why they have come into care, and that it is evidence-based,” she says.

“We need a view looking at the whole of young people’s education, their family life and their emotional and physical health – it must be cross-departmental and involve colleagues in the Department for Health and Social Care,” Coles adds. “[It must be] really looking at outcomes and what can be done to improve them – young people who have been in care, or are in care, have a big part to play.”

Coles chooses her words carefully about how she believes the care system should ultimately be delivered. But she stresses that she considers the existence of a “market” for looked-after-children to be fundamentally wrong. “What we need is a range of provision that has skilled people working in it, is not-for-profit and is properly funded,” she says.

New funding fears

Looking more broadly at children’s social care, the battle for proper funding is of course a core ADCS concern – and the subject of those capital letters in Coles’ presidential address – with the spiralling costs of care placements – as services have become focused on statutory interventions – being the key drain on budgets for most councils.

While the government has talked up its recent £3.2bn handout to councils to support extra spending during coronavirus, there has been widespread incredulity at the notion that such a sum will in any way cover the costs incurred, with many calls on the money, particularly from adults’ services.

This was only amplified this week by comments from education secretary Gavin Williamson, who said that no young person should have to leave care during the course of the pandemic.

Coles’ presidential address points out that the large mandate enjoyed by Boris Johnson’s government gives it an opportunity to invest deeply in children’s services, with the spending review due this year providing a platform from which to do so.

But the economic downturn caused by coronavirus and the public spending spike triggered by the government’s emergency measures has already caused borrowing to balloon. The longer the pandemic goes on the higher borrowing will go, leading to warnings that ‘austerity 2.0’ will follow to bring the budget into balance.

Looking at the new world foisted up on us by Covid-19 and beyond, how optimistic does Coles really feel?

“The extra funding is very welcome,” she says. “However, ADCS will continue to push for a three-year settlement for children’s services, which will include extra costs arising from the pandemic, and is vital to meet the pressures we have been stating very clearly over the last two years.

“Yes, I am concerned [about what the future holds]”, she adds. “But that won’t stop us being absolutely clear that children’s services need sustainable funding.”

Credit: Community Care