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England's Independent Review into Children's Social Care - the key points

A breakdown of the review's 278-page report recommendations...

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 23 May, 2022

The creation of Family Help Teams, a new national pay scale for social workers backed by career progression routes and a requirement for all social work leaders and academics to do direct practice are among reforms recommended in England’s Independent Review into Children’s Social Care.

The review’s final report also calls for the creation of experienced ‘expert child protection practitioners’ to lead in cases where concerns of harm to children are identified. 

The 278-page document is the culmination of a year-long investigation led by former chief executive of Frontline Josh MacAlister and outlines a five-year £2.6 billion reform plan.

In a move likely to cause upset within social work, it calls on the government to “assess the impact” of university-based social work courses.

The report recommends the abolishment of local authority-employed independent review officers to be replaced by independent advocates overseen by the Children’s Commissioner.

England should be the first country in the world to make care experience a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act; kinship carers should be paid and a major national fostering recruitment campaign launched.

The report also calls for a new National Children’s Social Care Framework to “set the direction and purpose” of a system more focused on early help; faster intervention at “drifting authorities”; IT systems that support “frictionless” information sharing and the creation of local authority staffing banks to end the high-cost reliance on agency workers.

In the report's executive summary, MacAlister writes: "This moment is a once in a generation opportunity to reset children’s social care. What we need is a system that provides intensive help to families in crisis, acts decisively in response to abuse, unlocks the potential of wider family networks to raise children, puts lifelong loving relationships at the heart of the care system and lays the foundations for a good life for those who have been in care.

"What we have currently is a system increasingly skewed to crisis intervention, with outcomes for children that continue to be unacceptably poor and costs that continue to rise."

The British Association of Social Workers welcomed the report's aims but added: “These changes will only be possible with an end to unfeasibly high workloads, inconsistent supervision and mentoring, and poor career and development pathways, which drive desperately-needed experienced social workers out of the profession.”

In a joint response to the review, the National Children’s Bureau, the NSPCC, Action for Children, Barnardo’s and The Children’s Society said the review "must be a turning point" adding: "It provides a once in a generation opportunity to fix a struggling system and create a step change in the way children and families are supported.

“Such an opportunity needs to be met with an urgent action plan from government to implement the reforms and a commitment for ambitious, long-term investment.”

The Local Government Association said: “As the report plainly acknowledges, reform and investment go hand in hand – one will not be effective without the other. This is why we’re calling for a White Paper within the next six months to demonstrate the government’s commitment to reform, and truly transformational investment by the Treasury in the services that give all children the best start in life.”

Steve Crocker, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, welcomed the report for highlighting "the need for signficant investment in rebalancing the social care system towards early family support".

The review calls on the government to publish a White Paper response by the end of the year, consult on the most significant changes it plans to make and introduce a new Bill before the next General Election before January 2025.

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “This is the start of a journey to change the culture and dramatically reform the children’s social care system.”

Family help

By far the biggest focus in the report is the need for a “revolution in family help” at a cost of £2 billion over the next five years backed by £1 billion a year legacy funding thereafter.

Such a “reset”, it says, will mean families experiencing stress will get “responsive and intensive support from people who will stick with them” to achieve lasting change.

This, says the report, will mean 30,000 fewer children in care by 2032-33 which as well as benefiting families will also make major savings to the cost of care.

“Family Help should be high quality and evidence-led, whilst being grounded in the context of family life and flexible enough to meet children and families’ needs,” says the report.

“It should build on families’ strengths, drawing on the wider relationships that families have.”

The report calls for a return to the “original intention of section 17 of the Children Act 1989” to promote welfare alongside safeguarding. It envisages a universal service delivered by multi-agency family help teams.

These should base in community settings, such as schools and family hubs, and be overseen by a new National Reform Board and assessed by a revised Ofsted inspection process focused on the “quality and proportionality” of interventions.

The Early Intervention Foundation said: “The direction of family help set out today by the review team is bold, visionary and high-potential.” It added: “Its ambition needs to be matched by equal ambition within the Department for Education (DfE) leading to focused, sustained and well-resourced central support for the implementation of the recommendations.”

Expert child protection practitioners

Concern the report would recommend a split between child protection and family support work were not realised. Instead, it proposes establishing experienced social workers in the new role of expert child protection practitioner. These would work alongside, rather than separate from, family help workers as needed.

The review notes that complex child protection work is “undertaken too often by our most inexperienced practitioners, who are early in their careers”.

It is at such “critical moments” that the expert child protection practitioner would come in, undertaking joint visits, chairing child protection planning meetings and leading multi-agency teams.

Expert child protection practitioners will have at least five years’ experience in practice and passed a new post-qualifying Early Career Framework to undertake the role (see workforce reform below). Existing social workers would be assessed for the post according to their experience.

Dr Robin Sen of the Care Review Watch Alliance Steering Group and a lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh warns this reform could create a "two-tier workforce in children’s services". 

Bureaucracy

The report says children’s social care is “complicated, bureaucratic and too often risk averse” which takes social workers away from direct practice.

A third of social workers employed by local authorities are in managerial or non-case holding roles, according to government figures, while those holding cases only spend a third of their time in direct work with families.

The review blames this on “unnecessary bureaucracy” and poor case management systems which need reforming.

It says: "Both social workers and local authority leaders feel that a significant amount of time is being spent recording information, not because it is important or adds value to decision-making, but because they are preparing for inspection. Leaders have a lack of confidence in undertaking new ways of working because they are unsure if Ofsted will agree."

A raw account of the impact of paperwork on a children's social worker can be read here in the latest entry from PSW's social worker diarist. 

The review sets a target of 75 per cent of social workers holding cases and half of their time spent working directly with families. Better IT and requiring non-practising social workers into direct work (see workforce reform below) will be part of the way to achieve this

It says frontline workers should also be able to challenge processes that “do not add value” both locally and nationally through a “feedback loop”.

However, the Care Review Watch Alliance, a group of care experienced people, academics and professionals set up as a watchdog to the review, warned: “What children don’t need is changes in statute, regulation and guidance that remove some of their rights, protections and support.”

Workforce reform

One of the review’s recommendations for getting more social workers into practice is for Social Work England to make it a registration requirement to spend 100 hours a year in direct practice.

It says: “Just as senior doctors and nurses work directly with patients, social work managers, leaders and academics should be required to continue working directly with children and families so that the whole system is rooted in the realities of practice.

"This requirement would bring thousands of experienced social workers back in regular contact with the complexities of children’s social care. It would provide opportunities for experienced social workers whose roles are focused on managing or teaching others to keep a hand in practice.”

How such a requirement would be practically managed is not spelt out in the report, but the implications for many people in the sector would be massive.

The review also recommends creating a five-year Early Career Framework for social workers in children’s services.

The framework would replace the assessed and supported year in employment and be linked to new national pay scales which “better recognise and reward the development of expertise”.

A trial to increase the availability of social workers outside normal working hours should be carried out by the Department for Education.

“This would both improve the experiences of children and families and could improve social worker retention and job flexibility,” says the report.

The review recommends investing £253 million over four years in the professional development of social workers, including on creating the new pay scale, career development routes and more flexible working.

Advocacy

The report says independent reviewing officers (IROs) “lack the independence to challenge poor social work practice” or enough contact with children to campion them.

It questions why local authorities do not trust social workers and their managers to make a best interests assessment for the children they work with.

“If there is a lack of confidence in social work capability then the answer is not to augment their role with new posts but to address concerns about performance,” says the report.

It calls for abolishing IROs and the creation of an opt-out rather than opt-in advocacy for children in care with a preferred option for this to be overseen by the Children’s Commissioner. The Commissioner would have the power to refer complaints by children to the courts.

Children’s rights charity Article 39, however, warned: “Removing independent reviewing officers from all children in care is a drastic and dangerous move. IROs are experienced social workers who scrutinise local authorities’ care and decision-making in respect of individual children.”

The recommendation also attracted criticism on social media with one IRO posting: "Very strange setting off for work this morning as an IRO. Feels like my colleagues and I have been dealt a lethal blow. I took up this role because I believe passionately in its purpose and value."

Poverty

Family help must also respond to deprivation, says the review which acknowledges the wider context of poverty and inequality. This includes devolving budgets to social workers to give financial assistance to families, providing benefit checks and debt advice and ensuring professionals are trained to consider how poverty impacts on families.

“Crucially,” it says, “supervision and professional development for social workers should challenge conflated and confused ideas about poverty neglect and maltreatment”.

The review says the government must “explicitly recognise” the impact of poverty and inequality and “understand how they drive the need (and therefore the cost) for children’s social care” and “ultimately have a wider plan to address them”.

Professor Ray Jones, who is currently leading a review into children’s social care in Northern Ireland, said without a reversal of government policies creating poverty “any prospect of improving children’s social care and children’s wellbeing will be trumped by deprivation becoming destitution with more families crumbling and more children left stranded”.

The Family Rights Group also called on the government to “put in place measures to address child poverty, including the impact of the current cost of living crisis” on families.

A review of 90 papers from 15 countries recently evidenced the link between poverty and abuse and neglect.

Agencies

The report says a 15.5 per cent reliance on agency workers in children’s social work is “inexcusably high” and costs more than £100 million a year.

To end this, it recommends introducing stricter rules on their use and when needed they should come via not-for-profit staff banks set up by government in rivalry to private agencies.

Social care market

The Case for Change interim report indicated a need to challenge profiteering in children’s social care by privately-run care homes and fostering agencies.

To manage this, the final report suggests creating a network of Regional Care Cooperatives which will commission and run children’s homes.

These would be responsible for local provision planning and will have the “financial confidence to create new in-house or not-for-profit” care homes.

The review also recommends exempting small homes from planning regulations to break the monopoly of provision by the biggest 15 providers, a move recommended recently by Bedspace, a small provider of placements for older teenagers in the north.

The review suggests the investment needed to create a new system should be partly funded by a windfall tax equal to 20 per cent of profits over the last five years on “those providers that have made unusually high profits from the dysfunction of the current system”.

However, like the Competition & Markets Authority in its investigation of the market in children's social care, the review does not recommend banning private provision or a cap on profits in the sector.

Kinship care

The Case for Change interim report published last year by the review stressed the under-use of kinship care as a family resource.

The final report says: “Rather than supporting strong family arrangements that can provide love and safety for our children, we are spending significantly more on care. Children in care are estimated to cost an average of £70,900 to wider public services per year.

“In order to support extended family members to take on the care of a child, the current system drives families towards becoming foster carers in order to gain access to financial (fostering allowances) and practical support.”

The report recommends all local authorities should make a financial allowance available for special guardians and kinship carers and extend legal aid to kinship carers.

Foster care

The review recommends £82 million over the next five years to improve foster carer support modelling the Mockingbird model of building family-style networks. The recruitment and training of foster carers will be moved into the new Regional Care Cooperatives along with the recruitment and training of foster carers.

A “new deal” for foster care run by government should aim to recruit 9,000 more foster carers.

Care experience protection

The review calls for improved rights for people who have been in the care system by making care experience a protected characteristic to reduce disadvantage. It says: “Making care experience a protected characteristic would provide greater authority to employers, businesses, public services and policy makers to put in place policies and programmes which promote better outcomes for care experienced people. It will make the UK the first country in the world to recognise care experienced people in this way.”

If this happened, it would require organisations to show they are inclusive to people who have been in care in the same way the law treats discrimination against age, disability, race, religion, gender reassignment, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy, maternity and marriage and civil partnerships.

Terry Galloway, who was in care himself along with his sister Hazel and led the Show Us You Care Too campaign for the legal entitlement, said: “I want to tell my sister how we are changing the care system, but I can’t because she was murdered.

“In life she was so angry because we were taken in by a broken care system, abused within it and then spat out like we did not matter.

“It’s too late for us, but for the 80,000 in care right now, the 100,000 care leavers up to 25 and over one million others with care experience, this is a good day.”

Social work education

The report says initial social work education needs to ensure qualifying social workers are ready to access the proposed new post-qualifying Early Career Framework so it doesn’t become a “catch up programme”.

To achieve this, the practice educator role should be given more prominence and overseen by Social Work England. The review states university-based social work education is not evaluated in the same way as fast-track programmes such as Step Up and Frontline, the scheme MacAlister is founder of and which enjoys significant government support.

It calls on the DfE and Department for Health and Social Care to carry out an impact assessment of university social work courses. This is likely to set alarm bells ringing in social work's traditional educational base which has been criticised by the Conservative government in the past. In 2014, when he was education secretary Michael Gove made a speech attacking university departments for turning out young social workers inculcated with "idealistic left-wing dogma".

National Reform Board

The report advocates a simplification of legislation and guidance to make children’s social care more flexible and responsive to children and families.

This, it says, should be backed by Ofsted and the DfE. It advocates creating a mechanism for local authorities to highlight “where they feel there are national regulatory blockers to taking a course of action that is in the best interests of children and families”.

Article 39, however, likened this to the threat to children’s statutory rights it criticised under the government’s failed 2016/17 attempt to let councils ignore statutory regulations to test new ways of working.

Young Offenders Institutions

These should be phased out and children instead be accommodated in secure children’s homes, secure schools or remand fostering run and commissioned by the proposed new Regional Care Cooperatives. Youth justice policy should be moved from the Ministry of Justice to the DfE.

Underperforming local authorities

The report says local authority children's services persistently requiring improvement is “not good enough” and intervention should be more easily triggered. Regional Improvement Commissioners should be established to “provide more robust challenge in the system” along with support for improvement.

This recommendation is likely to trigger concerns of the running of more children's services being outsourced to trusts as has happened in Bradford after persistent under-performing was cited as a reson for action in wake of the tragic murder of 16-month old Star Hobson.

IT and systems

The report says poorly configured and clunky IT systems mean social workers have to duplicate information. It calls for a reimagining of case management systems to “drastically reduce social worker time spent recording cases”.

To do this, a National Data and Technology Taskforce should be set up to create "frictionless" information sharing by 2027.

This will “drastically reduce the time social workers spend on case recording and improve the use and collection of data locally”.

Read review chair Josh MacAlister's letter to social workers here