The children’s care system is broken.
While there are staff across the country going the extra mile to provide children with the best possible support they need, it’s obvious to anyone connected to children’s social care or leading local authority services that the system isn’t working.
Pre-pandemic, services nationally were creaking under pressure as we supported 78,150 children in 2019; post pandemic, the number of complex cases and specialist requirements for children in care has grown by 5% to 82,170, more than 4,000 additional children. With the need more acute than ever, the increased numbers highlight how the priorities of bureaucratic systems with silos for health, housing, care, education outweigh the needs of the child, hindering our ability to support efficiently and effectively.
It was this reality that led Somerset Council and Shaw Trust to look for a new approach to supporting the county’s most complex looked-after children. We both knew long-term provision close to friends, families, and support networks was needed to ensure all children – regardless of background – could thrive. And we knew that we had to address housing, health and education.
It was time to be brave and pioneer something innovative.
Integrating a child’s home life with their health and education has required everyone involved to challenge and reimagine many aspects of work, processes, policies, appetite for risk and staffing. Sharing this commitment was critical – and Somerset’s children’s social care team, councillors and executives along with NHS leads all had a stake in how the contract was procured. With cross-party support and understanding that short cyclical contracts would not have the scope to address systems change, a ten-year partnership was designed bringing together high-needs fostering, residential children’s care, education and health to support Somerset’s most complex children.
Now entering year two of the 10-year partnership, we have successfully opened four homes with a further three in progress. Five young people have moved into residential children’s care and are making significant progress. Eight foster carer applications are in progress and a school site is being refurbished. There are also benefits for the residents of Somerset at time of spiralling rising costs as this project is projected to save £2.1m in health, education and placement costs in year two alone.
But it is the long-term benefits to children’s lives, now and in the future, that will determine whether our ambition to systematically change the way children’s care is provided is being met.
We’re using new insights about what works to continuously refine and iterate the Somerset approach. Everyone involved in the partnership believes this is a model that could holistically improve children’s outcomes across the UK, changing the system far beyond Somerset and Shaw Trust’s children’s homes.
Somerset and Shaw Trust know how challenging early experiences impact people’s entire lives – whether because they turn away from education, lack a trusted adult presence or lose their sense of worth, social connections, trust or confidence. This partnership is giving children more than a roof, it’s offering them a future so they could be the adults they had the potential to become.
We’re hugely proud that Somerset Council, Shaw Trust and the NHS in Somerset won the Innovation in Partnership award at the 2023 MJ Awards. If you want to explore how this could work in your area – or indeed if you are sceptical and want to challenge this approach – we would say let us show you. Come and visit us in Somerset and see how our approach is having a real-life impact and delivering in the most effective and efficient way possible. To talk to us about how it could be adapted to your needs email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Clare Winter is executive director children, families and education at Somerset Council and Chris Luck is group chief executive at the Shaw Trust.