When the government asked Eileen Munro to evaluate the impact of her child protection reforms, published over a year ago, she concluded that a good start had been made, but progress must now be accelerated.
A major obstacle has been the government’s delay in revising the statutory guidance Working Together, along with scrapping statutory assessment deadlines and initial and core assessments. Directors of children’s services say their hands are largely tied until these statutory duties are removed, pointing out that if they were inspected by Ofsted tomorrow they would be judged against current performance standards and timescales, not Munro’s recommendations.
But is this the only thing standing in the way of the speedy progress Munro has called for?
According to the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), Munro’s reforms are being undermined by social workers’ rocketing caseloads and public sector cuts, which add to their workload.
A child protection social worker in the Midlands agrees, warning administration posts are disappearing in her council, while the entire team still carries very high caseloads.
“I’ve got into the habit of handwriting my notes during or just after a home visit and getting admin to type it up,” she says. “It’s only an extra 15 minutes, but if you think about how many visits you do in a day it adds up to about two hours over the day. That’s actually a huge help.”
Because of the high caseloads supervisors simply don’t have time to help social workers reflect and analyse, she adds. “If I’m honest I haven’t seen any real difference since the Munro review came out. We had some extra training in areas we seemed to be struggling with, such as assessment, and that was really helpful, but it’s difficult to get onto more specialist training.”
Although everyone wants to take Munro’s recommendations forward, progress on the ground is limited, which seems to have affected the review’s impact, she concludes. “After the Laming review came out I noticed a very distinct change, but it hasn’t been the same with Munro.”
Social workers are angry that the issue of their rising caseloads has not been properly addressed, according to Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for BASW. “The Munro reforms cannot really be fully functioning and effective if we have such serious issues of capacity,” she says.
But Yvalia Febrer, a social worker in Richmond’s initial response team, has seen a huge difference in the attitudes of social workers and managers since the Munro review.
“That’s where real change happens, not waiting for official bits of paper from the government,” she says. “Yes, people are frustrated that the deadlines are still in place, but deadlines aren’t going to disappear because everyone is too worried about drift anyway.
“I’m definitely seeing a really good vibe on the ground. We’ve had intensive training on direct work with children and we’re able to spend more time doing that direct work.”
Richmond also appointed a principal social worker for six months and Febrer says the impact was palpable. “He organised huge forums of social workers and asked us what was bothering us and what ideas we had and some of the changes happened. We really felt like we finally had a voice.”
She accepts that she and her team enjoy low caseloads, however, acknowledging that progress would be more challenging in areas with high caseloads.
David Wilkins, one of the first principal social workers to be appointed, who will take up his post in Enfield in July, says the authority has been proactive to push forward where they can.
“Obviously we can’t ignore timescales yet, but I’ve done a piece of work trying to standardise the initial and core assessments as much as possible so they act as a single assessment,” he says. “The risk, if you don’t try and push ahead with this, is that you lose the initial excitement practitioners have when, after a year, they see nothing has actually changed in their jobs.”
If some paperwork is delayed while a social worker is doing quality direct work with a child, managers in Enfield support their decision, Wilkins says. This has made “a big difference”.
Other social workers in London feel less positive. One reported only one slight change in her daily burden of paperwork, but even this was still awaiting approval from senior management. Another said the recommendations from the Family Justice Review had had a more immediate impact on her day-to-day work and raised concerns about local variations.
“I think it is vastly different from borough to borough, which is not helpful for families who may come into contact with strikingly different approaches when they move or a case transfers. The child protection system is often bewildering enough without major differences in experiences just a few miles from one another,” she said.
Munro urges government to speed up social work reforms