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.