Throughout the summer the seeds are to be sown for what could be one of the biggest reforms of children’s social services. In response to a government prospectus to be published soon, a handful of local authorities in England and Wales are expected to successfully bid to test a new children’s social work model that could transform how councils deliver looked-after children’s services.
Under the plans councils will be able to contract out social work services for looked-after children to GP-style practices run or supervised by registered social workers who are employed either independently or by a private or voluntary sector provider. Councils will retain statutory responsibility for children looked after by the practices as well as adoption services and the independent reviewing officer role, while Ofsted will assess performance of the practices.
The idea for social work practices was first mooted in the Care Matters green paper in 2006 and legislated through last year’s Children and Young Persons Bill. But the fact the government is putting so much effort and time into its preparation work suggests it has big plans for the model.
“This will be an interesting and inventive pilot,” says junior children’s minister Kevin Brennan. “We need to try these things out to see if they are effective and can offer us something in the future.”
The minister admits there is uncertainty about how practices will interact with other parts of the system and promises a lengthy period of trialling and evaluation before a decision is taken on what does and does not work. But he says it is important that practices test different models.
Brennan explains: “It might be a social work co-operative or private partnership – we want to leave that question [as to how they look] open. What we’re looking for in a pilot is effectiveness and the impact it has on the system. Ultimately, we’ll have the power to prescribe what the structure can’t be if something is not suitable.”
As to what practices might look like, Brennan is reluctant to be too prescriptive but admits comparisons with primary care services are inevitable.
He says: “The GP model has been around for 60 years and has provided NHS services within clear boundaries. Like GP surgeries, it is a real possibility that social work practices could operate out of premises in the community. They could be allocated a caseload of children who are in the care system. But we want to make sure we don’t discourage any good suggestions.”
It is hoped that siting practices in the community will make services and social workers more accessible for looked-after children and provide more stability in that relationship, as professionals take ownership of their practice population.
Brennan believes the key selling point will be the greater freedom the model will offer social workers to organise services.
He says: “The feedback from social workers has been positive: they say they would welcome the opportunity to work in a small team in the kind of environment where they’d have a personal say in how things are run and not be part of a large machine. It may not be for everyone but there are social workers who will want to grasp this.”
Ian Johnston, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, agrees that social workers will be supportive: “There are many workers who would like to work in a place with more freedoms to enable them to practise more creatively.”
Anthony Douglas, chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, says the new model could help tackle the bureaucratic “monster” that social work has become. “We have too many desktop social workers and this could be a chance to reverse that trend. The relationship between social workers and children in care needs to change significantly.”
However, Douglas warns that it’s important that those attracted to work in practices are not “isolationists who just want to get away from the authority because they find it difficult to work with people”.
Brennan says he is looking for authorities that are “enthusiastic and inventive” to become involved in the pilots. In return the government will give more funding to meet the costs of making organisational changes and provide legal support to draw up contracts with practices and set up partnerships. Practices will be given a budget by councils and then decide how to spend the money and organise themselves.
Andrew Christie, Care Matters lead for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, supports the pilots but says they could pose financial risks for councils. “If social work practices are going to take over care planning then with that goes decision-making about very high levels of costs. In local authorities this is often the decision of senior managers or assistant directors and reflects the level of financial commitment – maybe £150,000 a year for one child for four years. If we’re going to delegate that to practices then are we also delegating that financial responsibility?”
Christie also warns that authorities will need to have very good oversight over the commissioning arrangements of practices, the care provided and its quality, as they do with independent foster agencies and children’s homes.
Despite these practical challenges there is unlikely to be a shortage of local authorities keen to take the plunge and establish a pilot, because, as Brennan says, “the only incentive to get involved is the desire to improve the care of looked-after children”.
➔ Join the debate on practices at CareSpace. Go to www.communitycare.co.uk/gpchat