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The Munro report two years on: Social workers find little has changed

It's almost two years since the Munro Report on child protection was published. So, what has changed for children's social workers and what will its greatest legacy be? Judy Cooper investigates

Eileen Munro with the report she presented to government in 2011
Eileen Munro with the report she presented to government in 2011

Professor Eileen Munro’s much-anticipated review of child protection was initially heralded a great success by social workers, knee-deep in paper work and battling bureaucracy.

If not a panacea, her report at least showed someone was looking at the dysfunctional system and trying to make changes.
 
But now, nearly two years since the Munro review was published, it appears there is less optimism about its potential to reform. Despite ministers agreeing to implement almost all its recommendations, it seems little has changed for many social workers.
 
“In the past year, I have heard virtually no mention of the Munro recommendations from middle or senior management,” one social worker in south London told Community Care. On the other side of the capital, a senior social worker in north London confirmed scant progress, saying the feeling is that, “nothing has changed and nothing will change”.
 
‘A lot depends on the attutide of senior managers’

Related conference

Professor Eileen Munro will be speaking at a Community Care conference on supporting managers in social work on 13 March

“I think a lot depends on the attitude of senior managers,” the social worker continues. “Unfortunately, in my authority at least they seem rather wedded to timescales, quantitative measures of compliance, and to have a sense of mistrust that social workers will be able to ‘do the right thing’ unless they are constantly and continually monitored.”
 
A senior social worker in the Midlands has given up hope of the Munro changes ever materialising, admitting social workers in his authority are doing more paperwork, despite Munro’s intention to free social workers up for more direct work.
 
“The cuts to administration staff mean we are doing more paperwork not less,” he says. “We’re still measured on how many visits we do, not the quality of them, and the majority of our training is on how to use our cumbersome IT system, which most social workers still struggle with even after the training.”
 
‘Munro progress not as tangible as hoped’

Other social workers remain optimistic, but agree progress on Munro is not as tangible as they’d hoped it would be by now.
 
“Everybody seems to be waiting with bated breath for the government to announce its official changes and until then there aren’t many real developments on the ground,” says Yvalia Febrer, a senior child protection social worker in Richmond.
 
The obstacles to change are proving intractable, according to Bridget Robb, acting chief of the British Association of Social Workers. “It was always going to be difficult,” she admits, ”but it’s been made worse because councils have no money, poor IT systems, which they cannot afford to replace, and child protection referrals keep on rising.”
 
The scale of these problems mean councils need strong guidance and support from the government. But with the ousting of children’s minister Tim Loughton (pictured below) last year, Robb believes that momentum has disappeared, with ministers concentrating on other issues, like adoption. “It definitely feels like there’s a bit of a vacuum on the Munro agenda,” she says.
 
Loughton: ‘No grounds to think Munro has been downgraded’

Although Loughton recently told the education select committee that he believes the children’s social care agenda has been downgraded at the Department for Education in recent months, he told Community Care he has no grounds to think there has been any downgrading of the Munro agenda following his departure.
 
“I am monitoring it closely and if I thought there was any stepping away from the agenda I would be very vocal about it,” Loughton says. “The changes to Working Together will be published imminently I believe and that will help.”
 
It is understood the delay to publish the new Working Together guidance is due to threatened legal challenges. Meanwhile, appointing a chief social worker has been complicated by proposals to add adults social care to the role’s remit.
 
Progress on implementing Munro in Devon

But some councils disagree these delays have been stumbling blocks. In Devon, head of child and adult protection Rory McCallum, says that while the authority is “chomping at the bit” for the new Working Together to be published, in the meantime staff have been working hard to implement a culture of change in line with Munro’s recommendations.
 
Devon already had a multi-agency safeguarding hub, but is now also creating smaller, geographically-based teams headed up by 50-60 advanced social workers. Senior managers are also contemplating a system where social workers do not close cases, but could be called on by a family and other professionals whenever they need them.
 
“It’s about crafting our structure so it is responsive to the principles behind Munro and a culture where building relationships with families and other professionals is just as important as other social work duties,” McCallum says.
 
Ambitious targets for social workers in Cumbria

One of the authorities chosen to pilot the scrapping of assessment timescales, Cumbria, is in the odd position of having received an inadequate Ofsted rating last year - although inspectors noted good plans were in place to improve services.
 
“It means we need to get on with reform and really push ahead as quickly as we can - improving consistency and getting social workers to spend more time with families,” says Lyn Burns, Cumbria’s assistant director of children’s services. 

To do this Burns has set a target for social workers to spend 80% of their time with families and only 20% on other tasks. It’s an ambitious target, but one that needs to be met if any real change is to be achieved, she says.
 
So, what is the key to speedy progress on Munro?

Loughton believes swift changes to toughen up Ofsted inspections could be the key to ensuring Munro’s reforms take hold.
 
“I think the fact that so many councils are getting poorer ratings than they might have been expecting is a good sign,” he says. ”It means inspectors are picking up on the problems identified by Munro and we are on the right track.”
 
For Debbie Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the elephant in the room is council cuts.
 
“Let’s not make any bones about it, there is a risk,” she says. ”You can’t cut that amount from a budget and not expect services to suffer. And the risk with any delay on reform is that other directives come down from on high and start to distort the vision.”
 
Both Jones and Robb, however, believe Munro’s greatest legacy is the clarity it has given mangers and social workers.
 
“On its own Munro was never going to be able to change anything,” Robb says. “It’s now how workers and organisations individually try to work towards that vision while fitting in all the other changes they are dealing with in the real world.”

Community Care contacted Eileen Munro for an interview, but she declined to comment.

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