13 December 2023

Structural change alone will not improve support for children, young people, and families in Scotland

A groundbreaking, comprehensive study undertaken over the last year by a team of independent researchers at CELCIS, the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection, has shown that how services are configured is not sufficient to ensure that children, young people and families get the help they need from services intended to support them.

The Children’s Services Reform Research study was asked for by the Scottish Government to improve understanding of service delivery models and their effectiveness in meeting the needs of children and their families. This research will inform the Scottish Government’s decision about the future of children’s services in light of the introduction of the proposed new National Care Service in Scotland.

The research involved examining 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 published today (13 December 2023) - Children's Services Reform Research: Learning and Implications for Scotland – identifies themes from across the findings of the study and determines that there are key elements which contribute to creating the optimal conditions for implementing effective, sustainable change to improve support and outcomes:

  • 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 who have manageable workloads and receive the support they need from leaders at all levels.
  • Some functions being led at a 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.
  • An approach to planning and implementing change that acknowledges the complexity of human relations and systems, makes the best use of existing evidence but also pays attention to emerging learning. The approach needs to use both technical strategies and innovation to overcome barriers and achieve sustainable outcomes, being 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.

“Scotland wants to be the best place in the world for children to grow up, where they can be loved, safe and respected. Our research adds to the detailed understanding of what children and families need now from public services, evidence which has built up over last decade including from the Independent Review of Care, the Morgan Review, the Review of Child Protection Systems, and the Christie Commission.

“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.”

The research study was supported by an Independent Steering Group chaired by Professor Brigid Daniel, Professor Emerita of Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, who said:

“The most important message from this research lies in the emphasis placed on the importance of building and maintaining effective working relationships with children and families. Any proposed structure needs to be tested against this guiding principle.

“Improvement requires commitment, consistency and persistence that is driven by collective determination to see the changes through. Organisations in Scotland have not been standing still. There have been many initiatives aimed at improving services, including a considerable amount of structural reform that has led to children's and adult's health and social care services being integrated in different ways. With such a committed workforce, a strong foundation is already in place. The evidence also shows that improvements have been made already. Future changes should not derail current effective reforms in which time and resources have already been invested. As shown in the international evidence, reform takes time to bed in, and needs to flow from a clear vision supported by effective national, regional and local leadership.”

Read the report

Read the previous reports