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Professor Ray Jones to lead Northern Ireland's independent review into children's social care

Chief social worker Sean Holland indicates service redesign needed to address high vacancy rates in social work

Ray Jones receiving an outstanding achievement honour at England's Social Worker of the Year Awards in 2018

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 21 January, 2022

A 16-month review of children’s social care in Northern Ireland is to be launched in February, it was announced today.

The review will be led by social work academic, writer and former chair of the British Association of Social Workers Professor Ray Jones, a vocal critic of a similar review in England due to report its recommendations this spring.

A key aim of Northern Ireland's Independent Review of Children's Social Care will be to look at how systems can better work in partnership with service users and how to create working conditions that support and retain social workers.

Speaking to PSW, Northern Ireland’s chief social worker Sean Holland said: “We have reached a point where clearly people are working incredibly hard in children’s social services and in some areas the challenge they face is reflected in the difficulty in retaining people in post.

“So we have to do something that shapes children’s services in such a way that people want to, and will continue to do the jobs that need to be done.

“That is going to have to require some kind of redesign because we just can’t carry on continuously advertising to fill vacancies which come up again as very quickly and we have to advertise and fill again.

“That is not a sustainable way for people to work but more importantly it is not a way to build the kind of positive relationships that we know families and children value in social work.”

Holland said he expected any recommendations to take into account advances in co-production with families made over the last decade.

“We need to move into a different place in terms of the relationship between the provision of services and the people who receive services.

"The vast majority of people who come to the attention of children’s social services want to do the very best for their children. We need to work in partnership with them if we are going to deliver the services that are going to help them achieve that.”

He said the review would also look at the burden of excessive paperwork, something BASW Northern Ireland has campaigned extensively on: “If there is bureaucracy that is burdensome and without benefit then absolutely we would expect Ray to make recommendations in relation to it," he said.

“But we should also remember that much work in children’s services is governed by statute. It is serious work and it has to be done in a certain way that allows scrutiny, continuity of records and allows it to be subject to judicial oversight.”

Unlike England’s review, the Northern Ireland has not stipulated its recommendations should be within existing budgets and should not assume additional funding.

Holland said: “To set that type of criteria is almost to pre-judge the findings. We are not saying we can guarantee that recommendations will be accepted or funded. When we receive them, it will be for the minister to determine what he wishes to implement.

“If some of those have funding consequences then we will have to bid in a very challenging fiscal environment for funding for implementation.”

On Prof Jones’ appointment, Holland said: “Ray is one of the most eminent figures in social work in the UK today and has been for many years.

“He has a very diverse background which ranges from being a director in a local authority providing services to looking at how services can be improved through his time at SCIE [Social Care Institute for Excellence] and has been used on numerous occasions to look at services that required improvement.

“He is also respected within the world of academic social work and has published extensively and particularly on the challenges of trying to provide children’s services which both protect and support families.”

BASW NI welcomed his appointment. National director Carolyn Ewart added: “BASW NI welcome the review of children’s services announced by the Minister today. We are hopeful the review will take a holistic look at the full range of services on offer to families and children.

"Fundamental to this review will be the structures in place and workforce issues which are currently at crisis point, recruiting and retaining the right staff is of vital importance. Social workers have for too long been managing with excessive caseloads, unnecessary bureaucracy, limited support and staff vacancies."

Prof Jones said he would be donating his £108,000 fee for leading the review to a scholarship at Bath University for students with care experience or from deprived backgrounds.

The emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s University of London has raised concern over the credibility of England’s Independent Review into Children’s Social Care.

In particular, he questioned the independence of its chair Josh MacAlister, founder and former chief executive of Frontline. The two-year training scheme in England for graduates into social work with children and families is favoured by the government and receives significant funds.

Prof Jones, whose most recent book is In Whose Interest – the privatisation of child protection social work, said: “It is a real privilege to be given this opportunity and draw on what has been more than 50 years’ experience in social work and social services and to have that opportunity of engaging in discussion and reflection with all of those who are experiencing children’s social services in Northern Ireland.

“There have been no restrictions imposed or implied in what I am able to recommend, particularly in relation to whether there may be costs involved or not.

“In terms of independence there is no requirement or expectation that different government departments or the civil service will be involved in monitoring and contributing to my thinking as the independent reviewer.”

Children will be represented in the review through rights charity the Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC), with parents and carers represented through Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI).

Prof Jones added: “One of the things I will be wanting to give attention to is what is the experience of that relationship between children and families and frontline workers.

“I want to understand that relationship both from the experience of children and families but also from frontline workers as well.

“At the end of the day that is often the crunch issue in terms of how well that is working and how much priority is given to it.”

Launching the review, health minister Robin Swann. He said: “It has been more than a decade since there has been a fundamental examination of children’s social care services in Northern Ireland. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of such services and exposed a level of fragility within the system for the most vulnerable children and young people.

“The review will look at how we support families to keep their children safe and well-cared for and enable them to stay together, and where this is not possible the provision of alternative care.

"It will also examine how the current services are structured, managed and led and assess if we can do more. In addition, we need to ensure the staff providing front-line services are sufficiently supported and developed to deliver the best possible outcomes for children, young people, families and parents who need their help and support.”

The review’s aim is to ensure services are:

  • Capable of responding to current and future demands and complexity of need
  • Meeting the needs of all children and families while engaging them in decisions affecting their lives
  • Supporting staff and carers in statutory and other duties

An advisory panel consists of Judge Patricia Smyth and recently retired director of children’s services Marie Roulston OBE and Prof Pat Dolan, a respected academic and advocate for children, along with young people and parents and carers with personal experience of children’s social care services.

Interim findings are expected to be published in the autumn.