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The role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) in England

Findings from a national survey

Since 2004 all local authorities have been required to appoint Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) to protect children’s interests throughout the care planning process.

The requirement to appoint IROs arose from concerns that looked after children could 'drift', with care plans that either did not meet their needs or were not implemented. Even where care plans had been agreed by a court, they had no ongoing role in ensuring that the local authority put them into practice. Given these concerns, it was decided that every looked after child should have an IRO: an adult with oversight of their care plan and empowered to act on their behalf in challenging the local authority. Although IROs were to be appointed by the local authority, they must be independent from the immediate line management of the case. The effectiveness of the role has subsequently been questioned, particularly IROs' ability to challenge the local authority, to represent the views of children and to widen their focus beyond review meetings. An attempt was made to strengthen the IRO role through statutory guidance: the IRO Handbook implemented in April 2011(Department for Education and Skills, 2010)

Doubts still remain about the effectiveness of the service and suggestions have been put forward on how this could be improved. Questions remain about whether IROs can be 'truly independent' if appointed by the local authority and, if the existing arrangements are to continue, whether they can be supported to fulfil their role effectively. The ability to act independently arises not just from where the service is located but from having the confidence and skills to make judgements about a child's best interests and to have the means to mount an effective challenge.

Much of the debate has been based on anecdotal evidence, however, rather than robust research. Only two qualitative reviews have been conducted to date. A review of the IRO service in Wales was undertaken in 2008 (CCISW, 2009) and found local inconsistency in the impact of the role, particularly in the action taken by local authorities to address IROs’ concerns about the quality and timeliness of care plans. Until very recently, there had been no equivalent review in England but Ofsted have recently undertaken a thematic inspection of the IRO role within ten local authorities. They found weaknesses in the way it is operating and concluded that more needs to be done if IROs are to fulfil their purpose (Ofsted, 2013).

The current study, carried out by the NCB Research Centre with funding from the Nuffield Foundation, aims to fill this evidence gap by providing the first comprehensive research into the functioning and effectiveness of IRO services in England. The study involves a large research programme and this report presents the findings from the first stage of the investigation, that is: the responses of 295 IROs, 65 IRO managers and 60 Directors of Children’s Services (DCSs) to a national survey and analysis of administrative data on IROs’ access to independent sources of advice.

The NCB survey findings provide the first statistical evidence on key features of the IRO service and are compared with the requirements of the IRO national guidance introduced in 2011.