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Focus on structural change 'is not enough' to improve children's services

Change to the configuration of services for children, young people and families is not enough alone to ensure they get the help they need, according to a report by the University of Strathclyde-based CELCIS (Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection).

The Children’s Services Reform Research study was requested by the Scottish Government to improve understanding of service delivery models and their effectiveness in meeting the needs of children and their families.

The comprehensive research will inform the Scottish Government’s decision about the future of children’s services, in the light of the proposed National Care Service in Scotland. 

The research examined changes to structural arrangements supporting children’s social care and health services in Scotland and around the world, the experiences of the workforces involved in providing support, and analysing what factors help or hinder the ability to meet the needs of children, young people and their families.  

The concluding report identifies key elements which contribute to creating the optimal conditions for implementing effective, sustainable change to improve support and outcomes. These include: 

•        supportive, trusting and consistent relationships between children, young people and families, and the practitioners who support them 

•        a focus on realising rights and improving the participation of children, young people and families in decisions which affect their lives 

•        local, high-quality and long-term funded service provision that is non-stigmatising and responsive to the wide range of needs of children and young people, families and communities 

•        a sufficient and skilled workforce which has manageable workloads and receive the support they need from leaders at all levels 

•    the leading of some functions at national level, including development and implementation of national policy and guidance, workforce planning and data infrastructure to support local service delivery 

•  structures which actively enable the workforce to provide the help and support that children, young people and families need, and to work together in partnership seamlessly across service and system boundaries 

• effective and wide-reaching measures to combat the poverty faced by many children and families 

•     a simplified and aligned legislative and policy landscape.

The report also calls for an approach to planning and implementing change that acknowledges the complexity of human relations and systems and makes the best use of existing evidence, while also paying attention to emerging learning. Such an approach would need to use both technical strategies and innovation to overcome barriers and achieve sustainable outcomes, and be supported by people skilled in complex change, sufficiently resourced and with a long-term commitment. 

Dr Heather Ottaway, Head of Evidence and Innovation at CELCIS, who led the research, said:  “With the Children’s Services Reform Research study now concluded, Scotland has the fullest picture yet of what is needed to ensure that all our children are supported when they and their families need support, no matter where they live, what type of support they need or for how long they need it. 

“The evidence tells us time and time again what it is that decision-makers need to pay attention to and take action on if we are to improve the lives of Scotland’s children: investment in a skilled workforce, collaborative leadership and the development of change expertise and capacity, partnership working between public and third sector services, reducing poverty and mitigating its effects, and ways of working that prioritise and enable strong and supportive relationships between the people providing support and anyone who needs support. 

“While there are no off-the-shelf solutions that can be quickly replicated, there is overwhelming evidence of what gets in the way of making real, meaningful and  effective change. These barriers can be overcome if, and only if, Scotland’s desire to deliver change to is matched by the investment of leadership, time, and funding in the design, delivery and reform of services.” 

International impact

Professor Alexis Jay OBE, Chair of the CELCIS’s Strategic Advisory Board, said: “In this research study, CELCIS demonstrates why it is so important to undertake rigorous research that will inform future decision-making nationally and locally, and I am in no doubt that it will have an international impact too.  

“This is a significant milestone and moment for children’s services. Along with the findings of the Independent Care Review, Scotland understands what works best and matters most to care-experienced children and young people, and now also understands the critical components required to support the workforce responsible for their care, and the current evidence of what it takes to achieve the transformation in children’s services we all want to see.” 

CELCIS Director Claire Burns said: “The findings from this research study give us more evidence than ever before about the change required to ensure that all children, young people and families get the help they need, when they need it. However, it reveals a sector facing persistent barriers to change while navigating a complex policy landscape and increased, competing demands and expectations and chronic, long-term under-investment in public services. Against these challenges, progress towards delivering change has been understandably challenging and inconsistent.  

“The challenges and issues that families and carers, and care leavers, are facing are stacking up – poverty, the cost of living, housing problems and a lack of access to mental health and many other support services. In this context we know our children and young people who require support, care and protection are even more in need, and why urgent action is needed.  

“While these challenges are not unique to Scotland, as a country we now know what is needed to improve lives and the solutions are within our grasp. Change is possible and is happening. We know, and the research confirms, that the workforce at the heart of Scotland’s children’s services is working extremely hard to best meet the needs of children and families under demanding conditions. We do know that even under these conditions – just like in the pandemic - individuals and teams are still developing creative and innovative ways of working in order to help children and families.  

“To maintain this momentum for change, we need to prioritise what will have the biggest impact for the largest number of children, young people and families, and hold to these. We know what needs to be prioritised: it’s working to tackle child poverty and delivering holistic family support. It’s investing in collaborative leadership and collectively committing to what it will take. It’s renewing the relationship with the third sector as an equal partner in building the solutions. And it’s providing time and resources for the workforce so they are well-supported and positioned to develop trusting, consistent relationships with local communities and practitioners who can respond to the range of needs that children and families have.” 

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