Analysis: are Munro’s social work reforms affordable?

Cherry-picking parts of her final review of child protection would not produce the changes needed, Professor Eileen Munro has warned. The question now is how realistic it is to implement those recommendations in full at a time of massive public sector cuts.

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Cherry-picking parts of her final review of child protection would not produce the changes needed, Professor Eileen Munro has warned.

The question now is how realistic it is to implement those recommendations in full at a time of massive public sector cuts.

At the report launch on 10 May, children’s minister Tim Loughton somewhat mysteriously said the government would have to see “if we can get [the recommendations] to work in practice” before applying any formal stamp of approval.

He also pointed to the £80m the government recently allocated to the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) for social work improvement in 2011 and 2012. However, government funding for the CWDC officially ends in March 2012, so this is not recurring money.

Another issue is that this money is not devoted entirely to the Munro review. In fact, just £44m will be allocated to the improvement fund, which would include Munro’s reforms as well as the Social Work Reform Board recommendations. The rest of the pot will be put towards the Step Up to Social Work scheme, the Return to Social Work programme and support for newly qualified social workers.

Professor Keith Brown, director of the centre for post-qualifying social work at Bournemouth University, said Munro’s reforms would founder without longer-term funding.

“It’s got to be a longer-term plan than 12 months,” he said. “Training every children’s social worker in, for instance, reflective practice is going to take a minimum of three to four years.”

According to Brown, a module in reflective practice for one social worker costs £500 to £700. There are no official figures on the number of children’s social workers employed in England, but, if we assumed they accounted for around half of the 85,000 social workers registered with the General Social Care Council, the cost of training them to the standard deemed necessary would be £20m to £30m alone – a large chunk of the funding allocated to Munro’s reforms as a whole.

This strain on resources is a central concern within the sector. Colin Green, director of children’s services in Coventry, said the success of the report would directly correspond to the level of government support it received.

“The report does have substantial resource implications and it is now the responsibility of the government as well as the sector, including local authorities, the police and the NHS, to step up to the challenge Munro has given us,” he said. “I would also expect the DfE to be trying to clear the way and offering proper support in helping us, for example, around how we take early intervention forward and the development of social workers.”

Joanna Nicolas, an independent child protection consultant, said it was a tough ask for councils to begin reviewing and redesigning their child and family social work delivery, as per a Munro recommendation. She pointed out that “an awful lot of time and effort will have to be put into that at a time when there’s very little money”.

Although some are calling for early action from the government, Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for England at BASW – The College of Social Work, said some recommendations, such as the appointment of a principal social worker in each local authority, should be piloted first.

“We need to work out what this role is and how it would fit into practice before rolling it out,” she said. “We need to do some scoping around how practitioners will respond to this new set-up.”

Munro’s recommendation that social workers be released from the bonds of timescales and separate assessments has received almost universal acclaim, yet there are also concerns this could lead to cases drifting again.

“A danger of so many tick-boxes is that workers feel obliged to tick something when sometimes a blank section is better – not every assessment has the same issues or priorities,” said Stephanie How, manager of the referrals and assessments team for Basingstoke at Hampshire Council.

“But my anxiety about a significant loosening of structures and timescales would be that, without some kind of accountability and timeliness guidance, there would be room for drift, which could compromise timely, needs-led assessment and planning.”

Green agreed: “With freedom comes responsibility and local authorities need to live up to their responsibilities on timely provision of assessment and services. We have experience now in being able to do it and there is still the role of inspection. It’s clear that Ofsted’s role in this area will continue.”

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