Skip to main content

Children's social care reform must not rely on 'Big Society' solutions

Social workers' warning amid lack of additional funding commitment in 'once-in-a-generation' review...

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 30 July, 2021

Social workers have expressed concern England’s review of children’s social could care end up promoting a David Cameron-style ‘Big Society’ vision of community’s helping themselves.

The warning comes from social work commentators in BASW’s Let’s Talk Social Work podcast.

Launched earlier this year, the government-commissioned review has been billed as a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to “radically reform the system”.

However, a contract signed by its chair Josh MacAlister states the Department for Education “cannot assume any additional funding from the Exchequer to meet the recommendations” which must be “affordable to the government”.

An interim report published by the review The Case for Change in June appears to underline the role of communities supporting themselves.

Its executive summary stresses improving children’s social care “is not something that national government, local authorities or other partners can achieve on their own”.

Instead, it says this is “a collective endeavour involving all of us and we have stepped back from playing our full part in the way we need to. Some of this is because the system pushes away help from neighbours, extended family and the wider community.”

Speaking during the BASW podcast Esme Daley, a social work manager with Achieving for Children and chair of BASW’s London branch, said: “There were 14 mentions of the word neighbour or neighbourhood [in the report] so it was very much that the onus would be put on to the individual family to embed themselves into the community as opposed to providing those funding support services that had historically been provided.

“It’s that more Big Society idea. We are back to David Cameron in 2010.”

Cameron’s Big Society vision encouraged people to take a more active role supporting their communities. However, it was criticised as a thinly disguised justification for cuts to public spending and was quickly dropped as official policy.

Speaking during the podcast Carolyne Willow, of children’s rights charity Article 39, also expressed concern that the review was ignoring the need for more public funding.

She said: “The word austerity doesn’t appear once in this 103-page report which is remarkable given the context within which social workers are working and the context within which children and families are living.”

She added: “I was a local authority social worker at a time when you could write a letter to the council and get a family a new council house with extra bedrooms. You could write letters to social security and get grants for families for carpets, curtains, duvets. I used to go shopping with families I worked with to buy duvets, clothes, to help them chose food and carpets to deal with the poverty they were facing.

“In order for social workers to be able to fulfil what our professional code of ethics and professional values and what the law says we are there to fulfil we need all these other systems to work really well for children and families.”

BASW England has written to education secretary Gavin Williamson highlighting its concerns and priorities for the review.

BASW England professional officer Rebekah Pierre said: “We don’t feel the review will meet the complex needs of children and families at a time when after ten years of austerity services are on their knees. We feel that anti-poverty approach needs to be integrated more.”

The Case for Change argues costs are spiralling in children’s social care because funding is “skewed” towards acute services and a focus on unhelpful risk-averse interventions.

It does acknowledge the impact of poverty and the need for more investment but says this must be spent on “reforms which achieve long term sustainability and better outcomes”.

Meanwhile, fresh concerns over cuts to spending on support for children and families have been highlighted.

An analysis by Pro Bono Economics found spending on early intervention services have dropped by more than a half from £3.6 billion in 2010 to £1.8 billion in 2020 after inflation.

And directors of children’s services from 12 local authorities in the North East this week called on the government to do more to tackle child poverty.

John Pearce, chair of the North East Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “Endemic poverty in many of our communities, together with a shortfall in funding, is driving dramatic increases in the need for intervention through children’s social care.

“Family networks are very much valued in our region and there is a strong sense of community but, nevertheless, many residents are affected by longstanding and significant levels of inequality and disadvantage.”

Pearce added the numbers of children needing care was “unsustainable” and called for staff to “have the capacity to build strong relationships with children and their families to support meaningful change”.

Children’s charities say the situation has been made worse by the pandemic and have called on more funding for early intervention.

The Local Government Association maintains £1.7 billion has been lost from the Early Intervention Grant since 2010.

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care will publish its recommendations next year.

See BASW England’s information hub on the review here

Let’s Talk Social Work is a BASW podcast featuring conversations with social workers, service users and sector leaders on the big issues affecting the profession. Click here to explore episodes