Independent social care practices: professionals speak out

“In practice and in my opinion, this will create change but not enough to significantly improve outcomes for looked-after children. The reality is we will always lack appropriate resources and sufficient money to implement radical change. So although it sounds good I await its impact as one resource decreases to cover another.”
Angie Jackson, social worker, Yeovil social services, children and family team, Somerset

“The green paper says the government is ‘exploring the feasibility of piloting new independent social care practices, small independent groups of social workers who contract with the local authority to provide services to children in care.’ Surely this already exists? For example, local authorities already commission independent social workers for court? You can often not be sure about the quality. How do you ensure consistency and quality control?
Is there an intention to create an elite group of ‘custodians of society’s social conscience’ who are to be set apart (or is that adrift?) from the management support mechanisms and the supervision expertise that guides and mentors us?
How will further fragmentation assist children? I think our client groups will feel overawed not assisted.
It’s a bit like when we deregulated the buses…whereas before you always knew where you could get a bus now you don’t know when or where they can be accessed – so you give up and choose another mode of transport.
Will this new form of ‘private practice’ serve to disempower and fragment client engagement?
Hmm maybe.
The concept appals me.”
Carolyn Matthews, team manager, adoption and permanence, Wigan

“I agree with the problem (excessive bureaucracy and diminishing time spent with children) but I doubt the solution of independent practices is viable apart from a small number of demonstration projects. 

Direct work with children and young people in care does need a small bureaucracy to support it, to find placements in a crisis when one breaks down out of hours, to raid other budgets to fund overspending care budgets, which would be hard for an independent practice to achieve if it is paid through a fixed contract price, and to share the risks and the accountability when a child in care is living dangerously, as some will continue to do.

Previous attempts to transfer statutory work like child protection to the voluntary sector have come to nothing as local authorities have the statutory responsibility for children in care and the only viable large-scale accountability framework.  Independent social workers will always have a role to play, supporting individual children and young people in care on a properly commissioned basis, but they are the wrong group for independent practices to support. 

A better solution to the problems identified is to raise the standards of all local authorities to those of the very best. On the other hand, properly funded independent practices for children in need – now you’re talking! The big question there is – could they ever be properly funded?
Anthony Douglas, chief executive,  Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service

“To the entrepreneurial social worker the independent social care practices idea should be/could be an attraction.  As well as having a focused approach to child care they could offer an attractive and financially rewarding career.

Independent fostering agencies tell us than for every 22 children and young people in placement gives the company a one million turnover.”
Ian Crosby, independent social worker and foster carer for over 30 years

“I am sceptical about the value of this proposal. It introduces another person into the lives of young people without a clear remit and with little evidence that it would contribute to better outcomes overall. Instread I favour the strengthening of the social worker and foster carer’s role, robust and focused mentoring support in schools, and further investment in advocacy and participation programmes.”
Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser for children’s services at the Improvement and Development Agency

“The green paper was heralded as a government initiative that would address the needs of one of the most vulnerable groups in society. It was right that it should be given such attention. However, when I reflect on the publication of this important document, part of me feels very angry because throughout my time in social work (over 25 years) this has always been an area of concern. Is anything going to change or is it going to be another initiative with a sackful of platitudes and no action?

There are two major concerns I have about this area of policy. The first one is about resources, if we are going to ensure that we give the best to this group of vulnerable children we need to ensure appropriate resources are put into their care.

My second concern is the possible use of ‘small independent groups of social workers’. The latter is a real concern because it could result in an even more fragmented system than at present.”
Chris Durkin, senior lecturer in social work, Northampton University

“Dismantling local authority social work is the only way to make it more effective. At the moment social workers are more like local government officers, bound by policies and procedures which, while well-meant, do not allow a young person’s wishes to be heard effectively.”
Melanie Howes, social worker, Cornwall

“This proposal brings some interesting opportunities for social workers who are often frustrated by local authority management decisions in relation to looked-after children.  It may give them more direct control over such decisions.

However, as someone who went from local authority social worker to running a private training business this transition is not straightforward. Learning business management skills is a new chore for most of us schooled in the local authority way of working.

Social workers going into business would have the same decisions to make and the same limited resources as local authorities. The need to diminish paperwork and bureaucracy is not going to be met by splitting social workers into businesses with the same paperwork to complete! Supervision and administrative arrangements would be difficult and costly to manage.

What is needed is quality services and this proposal does not solve the current challenges. The management of the private practices would be critical and challenging. If a comparison is made with GP practices, it appears to be challenging to manage these and meet government targets although recent financial incentives seem to have worked well! Would such incentives be available for social workers?

The main need for looked-after children is continuity of social worker and it is not clear whether these proposals will bring this. Social workers leave the profession mainly due to overwork and stress and these proposals could make this worse not better. The goal of stability may not be met by the setting up of private businesses.

The suggestion of having a lead professional role for looked after-children is strange. The social worker has meant to be fulfilling this role since the Children Act 1989. What we need is better training, less cases and better working conditions so that social workers can fulfil their existing key role in being corporate parents for looked after children.
Linda Naylor, independent trainer

“TACT (foster care charity) believes that independent practices could offer a real improvement in the delivery of social work practice. They could work more flexibly in terms of time working in the evening and at weekends responding to the wider needs of looked-after young people and their families. The independent sector has improved foster care delivery and raised standards and independent practices could do the same.

The independent/voluntary sector has a good record in social work recruitment and retention and therefore could offer a more consistent social worker to young people. There will need to be regulation and inspection to ensure quality and clear agreements around child protection and different line management structures from foster carer supervising social workers but this could offer a real opportunity to offer service user focused services.”
Kevin Williams, chief executive, TACT

Here are some of our thoughts and questions; also, how timely is it that Options for Excellence seeks to review the role of social workers?

Independent social work practices

• Social workers to gain more independence

• Greater autonomy in decision making for children

• To have money and power to support their role

• Increased financial responsibility

• Greater flexibility to offer wider range of services for the individual child

• To earn greater salaries and share in profits

• To focus solely on looked-after children

• Financial incentive to move children on to permanency or return home


• Not likely to improve the current shortage of qualified social workers – will put further pressure on the market

• Continuing professional development could be in jeopardy, as social work practices will have a focus upon profitability and could be disinclined to support training beyond the bare minimum

• Any practice is likely to need to recruit social workers from local authorities leaving very few, whose main role will be child protection. Current criticisms from social workers are the lack of opportunity for direct work with children, much of which is currently concentrated with looked-after children. The move of this work out of local authorities could reduce those opportunities further.

• Concern about what social work role is left with the local authority? Will be required to continue leading care proceedings and will continue to need an identified social worker.
This could set up direct conflict between the social worker acting for the local authority, who a child may perceive as ‘against his parents’, andthe independent practice social workers who is able to offer him tangible support.  Also doesn’t address the stated aim of reducing the number of professionals involved in the child’s life.

• Financial risk in setting up the practice

• What funding will be allocated to each child? Is it likely to reflect the tiered framework of needs and skills of children and their foster carers? Would it change over time as children move through different tiers and levels of need and related to age & development?

• Conflict of interest for the practice to have responsibility for the funds for the child, when the profits for the practice will be dependent upon savings that can be made from that budget.

• The practice will be the commissioner of placements, clearly an opportunity for linking with independent fostering agencies,  who could be among the first to set up practices as they have the structure already in place and are likely to have a competitive edge.

• The proposals that regional commissioning units will be able to offer a choice of placements suggests that local authority fostering services will also be reconfigured. Or will practicres be encouraged to set up agreements, which could result in local authorities paying more for their own foster carers?

• How does the child challenge the decisions of the social work practice?  The local authority complaints procedure and/or judicial review are unlikely to be available remedies when the decision making has been delegated to a practice

• Dilutes the role of corporate parent, moves the child a step further away from elected members

• Emphasises the importance of the care plan, maintenance and revision, which is a positive, but lacks clarity in who takes responsibility for the contents of the care plan.  Presumably the local authority should be responsible, but the practicewill have the social worker with best knowledge of the child. 

• Role of the independent advocate – currently wide variation in the use and practice of independent visitors – building on the role and encouraging their use as independent advocates appears likely to benefit the child in care, but would there be a conflict between the advocacy roles of the advocate and the practice?  If they are to take a greater role, should there be standard training and quality monitoring for advocates?
Maureen Floyd, team manager, London borough of Sutton, and Alexandra Conroy-Harris, social services lawyer, London borough of Merton

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