Councils should have choice to bin independent reviewing officer role, says fostering stocktake

Fostering stocktake recommends 36 changes to the fostering system, including supervision of long-term placements

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Photo: Jenny Sturm/Fotolia

Local authorities should be allowed to “dispense with” independent reviewing officers (IROs) and re-invest the savings in the frontline, the report of the government’s fostering stocktake has said.

The report – published this week and authored by government advisers Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers – said there was “little to recommend the IRO role” after an Ofsted thematic report identified a “number of weaknesses”, concluding there was a “fundamental problem” around the role’s value.

“The real issue is whether, rather than spending large amounts of money checking that children are being appropriately placed and cared for in the care system, we should invest that money in more frontline and line management staff to make that happen.”

Reinvesting the money spent on IROs on frontline staff and managers could generate “£54 to £76 million or more”, according to a breakdown of the estimated number of IROs, an average £40,000 a year salary and the number of children in care.

A 2013 Ofsted thematic report of the role had identified a “number of weaknesses” in its execution, the review said, including poor care plan oversight, excessive caseloads and a failure to consult properly with children.

Local authorities have been required to employ IROs since 2004 to ensure care plans for children and young people fully reflect their needs and that each child’s wishes and feelings are given full consideration.

Concerns were raised in the stocktake about how independent the role is when they are employed by the local authority they work for.

Changes in supervision process

The review recommended 36 changes to the fostering system with one focusing on changes to how long-term foster placements are supervised.

The authors argued that a placement being supervised by a fostering social worker (sometimes referred to as a supervising social worker) and a children’s social worker creates too much “unnecessary intrusion” in a fostering placement.

The report said feedback from service users was more positive about fostering social workers than children’s social workers, citing the high turnover in staff for children’s social workers.

A fostering social worker is the foster parents’ social worker, while the children’s social worker’s role is to look after the interests of the child in care. The authors suggested in each case authorities should decide on one of these social workers to supervise and offer support to long-term foster placements.

“In most cases, we suggest the single individual should be the fostering social worker but that can be determined on an individual basis.

“Where it is the fostering social worker who is chosen to take on the dual role, it would mean that individual would act as the responsible authority in supporting the child in placement and would undertake looked-after children reviews, personal education plan reviews, and managing contact with the birth family, while continuing to offer support to foster carers.”

The report said changing from two social workers to one would reduce family intrusion and deliver “cost savings to hard-pressed local authorities”, but it stressed this recommendation was made in the best interests of the child.

It also said there should be a “thorough assessment and consultation” with the sector over the effectiveness, cost and value for money of fostering panels.

The report recommended foster carers do not have the same status as social workers. “We can see where employment status might bring some protections to carers. But it would also bring significant obligations, more oversight, and drastically impinge on their independence. Indeed, we believe that the unique status and heart of fostering would be lost.”

Local authorities should be reminded that the delegation of total authority for day-to-day decisions for a child in foster care applies automatically unless there are “exceptional reasons” not to delegate, the review said.

It stated there should also be a national register of foster carers, the report added, so matching can be informed by carers’ experience, skills and availability.

Costs of fostering arrangements

On the ongoing debate over costs of private fostering arrangements, the report said: “The reality is once local authority overheads are taken into account, along with the indisputable reality that [Independent Fostering Agencies] care for more challenging children and therefore have to invest in both the pay and support of their carers, the gap is very small.”

However, this did not make local authorities wrong to adopt an ‘in house first’ policy when trying to match a child.

The stocktake recommended establishing a permanence board to monitor the whole of the children’s care system, and that local authorities should consider using foster care as a means of preventing unnecessary entry into care for children on the edge of the system.

It also said the Department for Education should update guidance and regulations so foster carers do not feel the need to curb “the natural instinct to demonstrate personal and physical warmth”.

Following the review’s publication, Narey said: “Foster Carers must be allowed much greater authority in making decisions about the children in their care and they need to be liberated to offer the physical affection which is a vital and necessary part of most children’s healthy upbringing.”

He added: “We make 36 recommendations and if all were to be implemented, as I hope they will be, then local authorities will have foster carers who are better motivated and better appreciated. And they will be offering greater permanency for children whose lives in care are too often disrupted.

“At the same time local authorities should make significant financial savings through obtaining better deals from most of the independent fostering providers, the commissioning of which is too often inadequate.”

Opportunity to ‘celebrate foster care’

Nadhim Zahawi, now confirmed as under-secretary of state for children and families, welcomed the report and said it is an opportunity to “celebrate foster care”.

“We will carefully consider the review’s recommendations, alongside those from the Education Select Committee, over the coming months to determine how they can help us to make sustainable improvements to the fostering system and to the outcomes for looked-after children,” he said.

Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, agreed with the recommendations for clearer guidance on physical affection and the ability of carers to make day-to-day decisions, but rejected the recommendation to remove Independent Reviewing Officers.

“We know from cases referred to our advice service Help at Hand that IROs often raise the alarm about a child’s situation that needs help to resolve,” Longfield said.

These views were shared by Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of Become, who said: “Given the report’s acknowledgement of the need for independent advocacy, the call for the removal of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) seems misplaced. IROs provide a valuable function of oversight and support for children in care, and this report does not provide a robust justification for their removal.

“We are concerned that this will result in the erosion of support for children’s rights and entitlements, which runs counter to the many good ideas in this report,” Finlayson said.

‘Disappointed’

Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network, said he was “disappointed” by a “lack of vision and ambition”.

“We are shocked that the report states foster carers are not routinely underpaid and are therefore disappointed that there is no move to ensure foster carers are properly paid for the work that they do.”

He added: “Overall we think this is an opportunity missed to create a foster care system fit for the 21st century.”

Andy Elvin, chief executive of TACT Fostering & Adoption, welcomed the report’s recommendation for a permanence board: “The focus of a joined-up body should be on supporting all family types so kinship carers and birth parents whose children return to them can access the same long-term assistance as foster carers and adopters.”

Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the National Association of Fostering Providers, said: “It is clear that local authorities should no longer be choosing fostering placements on the basis of an outdated notion of ‘cheapest first’.

“The stocktake has found that, given that the children placed with [independent fostering providers] IFPs are older and have more complex needs, the cost differential is not significant enough to warrant the huge factor it has played in justifying ‘in-house first’ placement policies. The most appropriate placement for each child should never have been the cheapest anyway, and we hope that we can now move away from that notion.”

16 Responses to Councils should have choice to bin independent reviewing officer role, says fostering stocktake

  1. londonboy February 7, 2018 at 8:58 am #

    And Sir Martin Narey is an adviser to the Children’s Commissioner? Wow…

  2. adarynefoedd February 7, 2018 at 10:12 am #

    Easy to pick off recommendations in this report negatively but I thought the emphasis on ‘foster parents’ rather than ‘carers’ and the importance of attachment was very good – foster parents should be encouraged to cuddle younger children, also felt that the critique of contact especially for younger children and babies was excellent. Weaknesses – fails to address at all issues of local placements being usually desirable also the wholesale use of rural placements often in fragile areas such as Wales by IFDs placing serious pressure on local services as well as uprooting young people from their home areas.

  3. Maria February 7, 2018 at 10:17 am #

    Council’s should have choice to “bin” IRO’s, is this in the Report or is it journalistic interpretation?
    Sadly whatever the answer to the question posed, the recommendations of Narey and Owers ”research and analysis” may well be adopted by cash strapped Council’s.
    I am an IRO and am not paid anything near the figure quoted, apart from the pointing at ” huge wages” issue, the other points appeared to indicate more should be appointed do they can do a quality job, rather than having to spread your self thinly. I regularly work 55-60 hours per week and am paid for 37, so cost wise I am a bargain!
    I consider my role in relation to children’s safety and well-being in both Child Protection and Care Reviews as an essential additional check. Near misses by under pressure high case load Social Workers that I can spot through this role will occur if you take out independent scrutiny from a non operational/supervisory lead…not sure you can put a costing on that.

  4. Nick February 7, 2018 at 1:18 pm #

    I am an IRO and the suggestion that my role is not purposeful in the lives of children in care is bordering absurd. I accept that there are many children who do settle into positive well matched placements, thanks to well thought out and implemented care planning; however there are an awful lot of children where this is simply not the case. In these instances, many have there lives further complicated and rather than thrive, continue to suffer from both past but also ongoing (within care) experiences. IROs provide an essential check and balance to challenge SW Teams to stand account of their care planning and keep the child’s best interests in focus at all times.

    Maybe we could move to reducing frequency of reviews for long-term placements. But dispensing with IROs is a blind faith born of politics and austerity, it is nothing about best interests and children’s experience.

    • Ruby February 8, 2018 at 8:19 pm #

      I would have to agree with both Nick and Maria. As an Adoptive parent, we would of been lost without our IRO and our child would of suffered, due to the number of oversights and mistakes made by the Social Workers. I would actually like to see the IRO have more power to ensure the needs of the child are being met, rather than SW teams agreeing in the reviews and never meeting the agreed actions or deadlines.

  5. Paul February 7, 2018 at 2:21 pm #

    There is a lot of value in this report. I agree the IRO role has not demonstrated it is value for money. Its effectiveness in overseeing good care planning is debatable and it has definitely taken very experienced social workers away from front line practice – in my experience once someone becomes an IRO they rarely move back to front line practice! Research by Elaine Farmer in 1997 / 98 was open minded by an independent chair – saying in some cases it would help but in long term care cases there was more merit in the team manager chairing the reciew. The inflexibility of how IROs must always chair / oversee the review was always unfortunate in my opinion and took away case by case decision making.

    I also like the idea of foster carers being delegated more decision making powers. Buteacracy works best when the person making the decision is not shielded from the person who the decison affects. In too many cases decision makers are not accountable enough to our children.

  6. Andy February 7, 2018 at 4:42 pm #

    Haven’t read the whole report, but I did read the section on IRO’s. How do you snort in print?

    – goes beyond the remit of the report (fostering) and through the back door floats the idea of IRO’s not being value for money

    – uses highly selective quotes from one fostering manager and 2 directors – none of whom are likely to be batting for IRO’s for obvious reasons

    – Martin Narey was appointed as special advisor to Michael Gove in 2013 when he was the education secretary and we know how well that went

    I think we get the picture here……

  7. North West February 7, 2018 at 5:08 pm #

    So a review by Martin Narey
    Some context- He was a special advisor for Michael Gove in 2013 and has a history in prison management, (that appears to be going well at the moment).

    From 2001–13 he was the Government’s Advisor on Adoption and his advice, based on an independent report commissioned by The Times, led to adoption becoming one of the UK Government’s domestic priorities. An approach that is now being critiqued as promoting forced adoptions above other options for children.
    -http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2015/11/20/government-faces-criticism-house-lords-preferential-adoption-focus/
    Couldn’t find much on the other guy’s background?

    Prehaps the IRO role should go? l agree it struggles with independence in some LA’s with particually poor cultures for challenge, although this shouldn’t mean the automatic loss of this role as this culture will be damaging in other ways to all workers in the organisation.
    Possily the better place is to turn the role into a completely independent role that operates as a co-operative or not for profit bolted on to the LA with a stronger, clearer legisaltive remit – however this would permit more oversight of decision making the government it feels doesnt want looking at. This bolt on organisation could then look to work more with children who are looked after on projects and support work altongside other organisations such as independent visitors / advocates etc.

    As for foster carers having more say in the lifes of the children in their care? Well, if standards for foster carers are improved with mandatory training that must be statatorily completed and assessment of foster carers by an independent and national organisation prehaps? This is a compromised position in some LA’s with foster cares with problems not being challenged by the LA as they are so desperate for placements, yet in the summary above no mention of this conflict of interest that means in some instances many children are taken from homes with poor parenting and placed into homes with some questionable parenting at times and individuals who dont have a realistic ideal of what the children need who are in their care, with the added complication of no blood tie and no person who is connected to them to relate to. When in such a placement how is Martin proposing an inexperienced FSW who feels unable to challenge management on the pressures involved in such situation should deal with this situation? And where is the challenge for young people all of whom do not have or want advocates?

    Overall l agree with the comment at the end, noting the lack of vision in the report, it does appear disapointing in that it clearly from the summary above misses a number of complex subtlies in the relationships between the placing LA trying desperatly to save £? to protect the construction of the governments austerity creation machine. After working across various LA’s a number of FC have rung up and said they want the child to be taken out of the placement that same day, l await to see what Martin’s response to this is.

    On the savings front he talks about, it is a typical neo-liberal response to minimise the costings without seeing the value of the abstract that you have created, if this role is to go as it is so useless, why was it created?

    In other news – enormous amount of money to be spent on a random company to deliver unneeded accreditation?

    • Lisa Green February 16, 2018 at 3:37 am #

      Agreed

  8. HelenSparkles February 7, 2018 at 9:14 pm #

    Children’s Commissioner does not agree that IROs should be scrapped. The importance of separation of roles between SW is also key, there is potential for a conflict of interests, collusion, and goodness knows how an allegation would ever be made let alone investigation.

  9. Nickie February 8, 2018 at 1:35 pm #

    I am responding as an IRO from 2001-2015 in 4 different local authorities having been a sw and Tm
    I do advocate for the crucial role of IRO’s in Local Authorities and make some brief points to support this view

    1 The IRO May be the most consistent person in the yp life due to often frequent changes in sw and TM personnel This helps ensure that planning is robust, consistent and sees the ‘bigger picture’ for the yp

    2 The IRO sees the bigger picture while hard pressed TM and sw staff can sometimes only see the next issue and therefore make short sighted decisions

    3 The IRO is often appreciated by sw staff as an experienced practitioner and their views sought in planning issues along side the Tm This enhances good decision making for the child

    4 The IRO is able to flag up requirements re paperwork and recording – crucial if records are to be read consistently and give an accurate record of the yp progress through the care system

    5 The IRO is able to “ think outside the box” and be creative in lac reviews and discussions re providing resources for yp

    6 The IRO – albeit employed by the LA- can raise and escalate disputes tho This is a blunt instrument as the only final route is to cafcass

    I have some sympathy for the view that IROs should be in an independent organisTion separate from the LA but against that is my belief that IRO influence can be accepted more where there are good professional relationships between them and Tms and sw

    I am very concerned about the suggestion that one sw should supervise a foster Carer, be sw to the child’ and chair the child’s review – or the Tm to chair lac reviews – a terrible backward step with the potential to lead to collusive and unprofessional relationships developing which could mask abuse and leave the yp feeling they have no one to confide in if they are unhappy or wanting and needing resources
    Many times as an IRO I was able to make sure the LA provided resources yp are entitled to
    There is much more to say on all these points but hopefully if the children’s commissioner thinks IROs are valuable they will be able to continue IROs are often seen as a thorn in the side of senior managers in LAs all the more reason to keep them in my view! They hold managers to account for their decision making

  10. Social Work Champion February 9, 2018 at 10:25 am #

    I have been an IRO for many years in a large metropolitan authority. I have also worked in many other roles including front line child protection work, adoption, and quality assurance/planning. I would suggest that Mr Narey needs to reflect more deeply on why the IRO role was first created. At that time children in care were part of what could be described as the “Cinderella Service” of Children’s SW Services. Many would be left without an allocated SW in times of staffing shortages, would not benefit from their statutory LAC Reviews taking place consistently and suffered from any coherent or evaluated care planning input at all. The child’s voice in Reviews was barely heard, let alone acknowledged or acted upon. As these Reviews – if they took place at all- were very often chaired by the responsible Team Manager, or a close Area Team colleague, there was very little incentive to expose or challenge poor practice; quite the opposite in fact.

    Whilst I would agree that there are weaknesses in the role- being employed by the host LA being the most obvious- it would be folly to lose all these gains in the haste to “make efficiencies” for cash-strapped authorities. May I suggest that Mr Narey perhaps turns his attention to the honest truth that good quality services cost money, and perhaps remind himself of the havoc caused in the Criminal Justice and Education Services, with which he should be quite familiar, by the ideologically driven imperatives to save money and allow the values of the market place to drive the agenda.

  11. dCG February 12, 2018 at 11:05 am #

    I’m a children’s Guardian and know from experience that often the IRO is the only person in the LA advocating for children and demanding resources / support. I agree many reviews of long term placements become ‘going through the motions’ and perhaps there could be more flexibility in allowing stable long term placements to be reviewed less often, allowing concentration on more high need cases. Also, stable placements could benefit from oversight by only one of SW or SSW with again flexibility for those that are more unstable. Important to remember the SW recommendations are often lead by LA management with a greater eye on resources. I like the idea of much more robust independence for IRO however & above suggestion that they could be separated into an advocacy service with possible support services also.

  12. Tom J February 13, 2018 at 4:50 pm #

    Narey’s report is a very harsh read if you are currently an IRO; Basically; Your role is waste of time and money!

    Blimey!

  13. Roberta February 16, 2018 at 7:36 am #

    The ‘thematic’IRO inspection Narey refers to was concluded in 2013. I am an IRO in a ‘good’ authority and I am constantly challenging poor management decisions, usually to do with inadequate placements. I wonder if Narey has been talking with the Chief Social Worker to enable her to drive through her agenda.

  14. Diane February 16, 2018 at 10:08 am #

    I have worked as a supervising social worker for a number of years and have often observed that the IRO is the only person present in the team around the child who can make things happen and secure services from cash strapped local authorities that are so desperately needed by the looked after child. In my opinion it would be a huge mistake to scrap the role. If anything IROs should be made more independent.

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