Jenny Coles took up her new role as president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) this month in a time of maximum turmoil.
The pandemic, as the new president has said in her first column for The MJ is an unprecedented national emergency. But she has been proud to see local authorities and their partners keeping important services going, ‘and this includes ensuring vulnerable children and families are safe and provided for’.
To ‘keep children’s interests centre stage’, she makes it clear that the ADCS has been ‘in daily contact with the Government’, putting pressure on it throughout the crisis. By last weekend, local government secretary Robert Jenrick said councils in England would get an extra £1.6bn. The president has welcomed both this move and the Department for Education’s announcement that laptops, tablets and internet facilities are being procured for young learners without access to this equipment at home. She said the £1.6m being given to the NSPCC to boost access to its helpline for adults who are worried about the wellbeing of a child or young person is also welcome.
How does she rate the work being done so far by councils? Speaking to The MJ just before the Easter weekend, Ms Coles, who has been director of children’s services for Hertfordshire CC for 10 years, said that to ‘very quickly organise schools opening for key workers, and for vulnerable children, was a really big logistical challenge’, both across the country and in Hertfordshire’.
She added: ‘Schools, school leaders and local authorities have really risen to that challenge and there’s now good planning taking place’, and the partnership working with schools required to achieve this ‘reaffirms local authorities as the leader of place in education’.
In her first column, she has highlighted the helpfulness of having public health within local government during the crisis, but said one of the fragilities of the system is a continuing difficulty in recruiting and keeping enough social workers. That makes what social workers are achieving in the current conditions even more notable. ‘Local government is running social care services in a virtual way and online,’ said Ms Coles. ‘We’re getting technology that you are being told you’ll get in four to six months put in in a week, allowing social workers to communicate – and with partners – and that is developing at pace across the country.’
She added: ‘At some point we need to capture the impact of it, because I do think that some of these ways of working will carry on.’
At this point in the emergency, what concerns her the most? ‘The things that are emerging for us as areas to work on are firstly the number of children with social workers attending school which has been lower than expected.
‘We have to give them (families) that support, and change those messages a bit to get them back, because of that line of sight in safeguarding in schools being a protective factor. That’s going to be a big push. That’s what the ADCS has been talking to the Department for Education about.’
Have there been attempts to quantify nationally the number of families who are self-isolating and not allowing social workers to see children? ‘It’s early days…certainly most areas are beginning to think quickly about what indicators they are going to follow to monitor the impact of COVID-19 and that will be really important. We may well look at that by individual local authority and regionally.’
She is also concerned about the issue of ‘young people finding it very hard to stay in’ during lockdown. ‘We think that’s an important and a powerful area for us to work on during the year.’
Inclusion and belonging is going to be a key priority of the ADCS during her presidential year, continuing some of the work done by the previous president Rachel Dickinson. ‘It fits in with what the Government’s actually saying about levelling up. We particularly want to concentrate on young people. It does link with our past priorities around mental health, exploitation and serious youth violence.’
She added: ‘If young people feel included in their society and get a lot out of what is a key part of their lives in terms of educational outcomes, then they feel more able to resist what other challenges might be around that make them vulnerable.’
Ms Coles qualified as a social worker in 1986 and has a strong background in safeguarding, tackling domestic abuse, sector-led improvement, and managing integrated youth and youth justice services. Hertfordshire has had an integrated youth service incorporating youth justice for ‘quite some time’, she said. ‘Over time that’s developed into what we are just launching now (from 1 April) as our Specialist Adolescent Service Hertfordshire. It has incorporated all the exploitation work and all the stuff we’ve been working on for some years.’
She stressed the importance of working with ‘our partners, our health and police colleagues’, particularly in the context of the pandemic. ‘It’s going to be a test of the strength of safeguarding partnerships, actually.’
The ADCS is not currently seeing evidence of any independent children’s homes struggling as yet in terms of capacity and business continuity because of COVID-19, ‘but I am saying that with caution, we are a long way off this ending – so it’s an area we are going to have to watch’.
Is there a danger providers will be pushed to the edge financially due to COVID-19? ‘What most local authorities have done is first of all confirm to providers that they are going to keep paying them and will pay for, with evidence, reasonable extra costs of what is required. The important thing is to keep the young person in the placement.’
In one of her last messages to the sector during her presidential year, previous president Ms Dickinson said children’s services ‘should not be a blue light service’. Her successor is doing her utmost in the darkest of times to ensure that does not become the reality.