‘Five bigger concerns for children’s social work than the threat of privatisation’

Opinion: Lisa Harker argues that the furore over children's services outsourcing mustn't distract from the sector's clear and present problems

Child school
Photo by REX/West Coast Surfer/Mood Board

by Lisa Harker, NSPCC director of strategy, policy and evidence

There’s no denying the need to look carefully at the government’s recent proposals around outsourcing children’s services. We have to make sure the policies the DfE is putting forward don’t interfere with the quality or water down the accountability of services.

But there’s a danger that we’re being distracted by a fight about something that may never happen. At present much of the debate is about the hypothetical risk of the likes of G4S and Serco taking over swathes of sector, yet it’s questionable whether there are signs that’s likely. We’re facing many challenges and, while we mustn’t ignore the potential fears around outsourcing, we mustn’t allow them to crowd out our attention on these other issues.

1. Talking about need

The NSPCC estimates that for every child on a child protection plan, eight more are being maltreated. While it’s understandable that children’s services aren’t in a position to look for levels of need in communities, if we only understand child protection from the crisis end of the spectrum then we have little chance of easing pressure on the system, or of preventing problems in families from escalating to the point where they need social care interventions. Rather than concentrating our national and local measures on children who are known to services, we should measure the real need for services to understand how to reduce the number of children who become subject to a child protection intervention.

2. Ending the referral culture

Over the last two years – as referrals into children’s social care have continued to rise – we’ve seen accepted referrals decline in England and Wales. All too often, the DfE’s Working Together guidance for professionals coming into contact with children is interpreted as meaning, ‘if you’ve got a concern, you’re responsible for referring that to children’s social services – and that’s where the responsibility ends.’ We must challenge that false assumption, and find ways to be more effective at intervening earlier – that might mean support from children’s services for GPs or teachers, but not necessary passing over cases.

3. Defining the role of the 21st century social worker

It’s a concern, given current pressures and the level of unmet need, that social workers are being expected to do a job they can’t fulfil – not only dealing with the emergency end of the system but having a role in preventing abuse, which is difficult to do. Establishing where their role begins and ends in the 21st century is critical and will help us define what other professionals need to do; where the role of a teacher ends and that of a social worker begins is a critical conversation we need to have, for example. It’s very much up for discussion, but we might want social workers to take a stronger advisory role in the actions other professionals can take; act more as a consultant to others.

4. Putting relationships at the heart of service delivery

We hear time and again of families who have received multiple ‘interventions’ from services – with masses of resources and effort spent – to no avail. Services come and go, but underlying problems remain. Social workers understand the value of sustained, holistic relationships with their clients, but we need to be honest that current pressures are undermining that way of working. We have to take a look at where others in the sector can play a role – voluntary organisations, for example, working with families and effectively joining with statutory services to provide more joined up care. We must ensure there are sufficient professionals in children’s lives (it could be a teacher or doctor that’s involved long enough to understand and resolve problems), use resources in communities more effectively, and reassess some of the roles we currently have.

5. Developing a national framework

In all of this we have to be clear about what we want to achieve and what outcomes we expect – it’s not just about managing demand but transforming children’s lives in context of families. Until all professionals are working to same set of outcomes we’re unlikely to be able to move forward effectively. The current government hasn’t provided a clear outcomes framework for children and families work, and that leaves it to the sector to decide what it might be. As the recent report from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives argued, the sector must define its own destiny and be clear about what the role of statutory services can be in terms of transforming lives in the 21st century. We have a sector that’s mindful of the need to make improvements rather than wait for them to be imposed – and there’s plenty of appetite for change there.

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One Response to ‘Five bigger concerns for children’s social work than the threat of privatisation’

  1. Trevor McCarthy June 13, 2014 at 12:30 am #

    Actually de-nationalising services that ought to be provided by the State is a significant threat; this article seems to have an undercurrent of the NSPCC director of strategy, policy and evidence laying down a marker for getting a bigger slice of the action. Consider prisons as an example – de-nationalise prisons and there is an instant private sector lobby created for extending the length of sentences and using incarceration more widely (see the US system).
    While on the subject of prisons – private multi-nationals have been found to be defrauding us, claiming payments falsely for work they had not done> The ‘sentence’ they received for perpetrating serious fraud: they got to pay some money back, retain those contracts and are allowed to tender for – and are being awarded – more work. Anyone with a decent overview of policy would have concerns about letting this kind of organisation get their hands on work with the most vulnerable children in society.
    The NSPCC is a fine organisation and this article makes valid points.
    It makes five points, introducing them with: ‘while we mustn’t ignore the potential fears around outsourcing, we mustn’t allow them to crowd out our attention on these other issues.’
    Just to be clear:
    1. The ‘fears’ aren’t potential – they are actual legitimate concerns about future government behaviour based on analysis of previous conduct.
    2. If this article can manage to hold 5 different related ideas at the same time, it might just be that people who care about social work can’t hold a sixth (that de-nationalisation of child protection services forms a backdrop to the daily struggles the profession faces).
    3. This article has decent content and it’s a shame to detract from it by giving the unfortunate impression that it is also setting out a stall to be the beneficiary of any future so-called ‘out-sourcing’.
    G4S & Serco (and while we’re at it Atos) aren’t hypothetical; they are real and they are really out there positioning themselves to run any and all of our services. Their motivation and indeed their legal fiduciary duty is to do that at a profit for the benefit of their shareholders – not our communities.
    As well as focusing in on the detail we need to remember to look up and see the bigger picture.
    If “we” were giving out contracts for public works, we would obviously prefer that they went to organisations like the NSPCC – but “we” don’t make those decisions. “They ” do and “they” give them to the multi-nationals who might give the scraps (sub-contract – sub-outsource?) – and shift the risks – onto the charitable sector.
    Let’s be careful what we wish for – and if we really don’t wish it to happen let’s resist it – not put it on the back burner.