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Trust status for Bradford's children's services not a panacea say social workers

Government announcement in wake of Star Hobson tragedy and inadequate rating

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 26 January, 2022

Bradford’s children’s services is to be put under control of a not-for-profit trust by the government after it has failed to improve from an Ofsted inadequate rating since 2018.

However, the change of management structure was questioned by social workers as unlikely to provide a panacea for issues impacting in Bradford and the wider sector.

Ministers acted in the wake of the sentencing last December of the killers of Star Hobson, a 16-month-old girl, who was known to services and murdered by her carers.

Recommendations to turn it into a trust follow a three-month review by a agovernment-appointed commissioner Steve Walker.

The Department for Education said his report showed that Bradford “lacked the capacity and capability to improve services at pace on its own" and recommended an "alternative delivery model”.

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “Keeping vulnerable children safe from harm is non-negotiable. Where a council is not meeting its duty to do this, we will take action to protect children and put their needs first.”

Trusts have been Westminster’s answer to improving children’s services judged to be failing by regulator Ofsted. There are eight currently in England.

They take the day-to-day running of the service out of the hands of the local authority and put it under a new organisation with an independent board of directors.

The authority is still ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of children in the area, but it is believed that new management will provide fresh impetus for improvements local authority managers have been unable to deliver.

Under the arrangements, social workers and other staff are transferred across to the new trust.

However, the Social Workers Union said issues faced by children’s services and social workers across the UK ran much deeper than being just about who manages them.

General secretary John McGowan said: “Moves elsewhere to turn children’s services into trusts have shown mixed results and do not necessarily in themselves address the wider issues faced by children’s social workers.

“These include rising referrals due to growing need, exacerbated in recent times by Covid and a decade of austerity. This has placed increased demand on the system and social workers, resulting in more referrals, bigger caseloads, more stress and higher burnout rates, which adds to already significant staffing shortages.

“We need more social workers and the creation of positive working conditions that give them time to do the relational work we know makes a difference, rather than being chained to computers and filing in forms.”

McGowan highlighted findings from a new survey by SWU and LBC Radio showing 58 per cent of social workers say their caseload is unmanageable.

BASW England has campaigned for social workers to be able to spend more time with service users and less time doing paperwork through its 80/20 campaign.

It said: "Stability and effective leadership are required to support a workforce that has been working within the context of a high turnover rate of staff, staff vacancies, significant transition in leadership, and ongoing instability.

"The government’s decision to transfer Bradford council children’s services to a not-for-profit children’s trust will create uncertainty for the workforce. As such, this must be recognised and appropriately managed.

"A culture of support and effective, ethical leadership will also be crucial at this time. This must include individual and peer reflective supervision, manageable workloads, time to do the job, and also time to grieve. It must also include real investment and resources for social work, families, and local communities."

Social work workforce consultant David Jones also questioned whether trust status was the answer to improving services at Bradford and elsewhere.

“The structure for delivering children’s services is not the main variable in performance,” he said. “The key issue is the nature of leadership by politicians and senior managers and the culture of practice which they inspire in the staff. 

“There are some good local authorities and some good trusts but also examples of failings in both models.  

 “The professional culture is crucial and that is certainly affected by the resources available – although resources are not a key determinant in themselves.”

An Independent Review of Children's Social Care in England is due to make its recommendations in the spring.

One of the questions it has asked is how to address the tension between "protection and support" in children's social care. This has sparked speculation the review could recommend the two roles are split or even call for the creation of a national specialist child protection and investigation service.

According to the review, feedback suggests families are more likely to favour such a move while social workers warn against it.

Jones said: "Children’s services must be grounded in and connected with local communities. Remote child protection agencies lack community knowledge and community connections and cannot be effective."