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Voice of social work WILL be heard in children's social care review, MacAlister tells BASW

BASW England's Children and Families group gains assurances after meeting but still has concerns...

Josh MacAlister

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 5 May, 2021

The head of England’s review into children’s social care has told social workers they will be heard amid worries the profession’s voice has been sidelined.

The assurance came after BASW England’s Children and Families (C&F) group met Josh MacAlister, chair of the review, to highlight their concerns.

MacAlister stated a “workforce engagement strategy” would be launched in the next few weeks. Early findings from the review are also expected by the end of May or June.

James Blewett, chair of the C&F group, said: “The meeting was organised because we had concerns about the exclusion of practitioners thus far from the review.

“We couldn’t imagine any other area of review of services like teaching and health not having a central involvement of the workforce.

“While the meeting was constructive, the conclusions of his offer to engage with us are untested. We wait to see what the proposals are.

“Clearly social workers are the lead professional in much of the children’s social care sector and therefore must be at the heart of any discussion about the future of the sector.”

Other stakeholders including trade unions, must also be heard during the process, said Blewett.

Ministers launched the 15-month Independent Review into Children’s Social Car earlier this year. It was billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to “radically reform the system”.

The appointment of MacAlister, founder Frontline, the government-funded fast-track graduate training programme for children’s and families social work, immediately attracted criticism.

A letter sent to the Department for Education signed by 100 social workers, care leavers, academics and 27 organisations questioned the review’s independence because of the significant financial support Frontline gets from the government.

Frontline's link to big business has also sparked concern that the findings of the review are a foregone conclusion, with outsourcing of services likely to be recommended.

MacAlister, who stepped down as chief executive of Frontline to lead the review, has sought to allay concerns and underline his independence. A spokesperson for the Department for Education has also stressed that MacAlister must comply with principles of impartiality in public life expected in such appointments.

The relative short timescale for completing the review is another concern of the C&F group. 

“We welcome the fact it is looking at the whole system because everything joins up but that does make it seem particularly unrealistic there can be a meaningful process within 15 months,” said Blewett.

During the meeting, McAlister outlined his belief that past reviews and attempts at reforming children's social care had created an overly complex system "like a stack of Jenga - layered over time and with shaky foundations". 

McAlister has sought to put the voice of people who have experience of children’s social care at the centre of the review by establishing an ‘expert by experience’ group.

Recruitment to this group, however, came under criticism after around 1,000 people applying for one of 15 places were turned down.

“It caused a lot of distress,” said Blewett. “They were not applying for a job, they were applying to share their lives and have their experiences validated and drawn upon and respected. People didn’t feel that happened in the process.

“He [MacAlister] said there had been some learning out of it and he should have been clearer about the limited amount of people able to participate.”

Blewett acknowledged social workers were unlikely to be beyond criticism in the review from people who felt they did not have a good experience of the profession.

“We recognise some people don’t have positive experiences, whether it is in the care system or the child protection system. It is incumbent on all professional groups, particularly social workers where we are involved in such intimate parts of people’s lives, that we are open to challenge and think about the ways our services are experienced.

“But you can’t avoid the wider questions about how the state is funding this area of activity as well as how it is regulated.

“BASW members have always wanted to be constructive around the review but we will have to see how the process moves forward now.”

Government attempts at reforming children's social care over the last decade have sparked concern among some in the sector of a loosening of rights protecting children aimed at making it more attractive to outsourced providers and private sector organisations.

Blewett said: “There have now been a number of occasions - such as the Statutory Instrument 445 around the Coronavirus Act, such as the exemption clauses that were originally part of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 - to deregulate. And there has been widespread concern across the sector about the weakening of children and family rights.”

On a personal level, Blewett said he remained “on the sceptical side” about the outcome of the reveiw.

“I think we are just going to get a reheated version of the reforms the government have been trying to push through for years.

“I have really big concerns about the academisation of children’s services, about privatisation and outsourcing and the de-professionalisation of the workforce, but I go into this with an open mind…”