Social care researcher James Blewitt examines research carried out into outcomes for children in contact with social services
Title: Quality Matters in Children’s Services: Messages from Research
Author: Mike Stein, research professor at the social policy research unit, University of York and academic adviser to the Quality Protects research initiative
This research overview reports on the findings of nine studies commissioned as part of Quality Protects, an initiative launched by the Department of Health in 1998 to transform the management and delivery of children’s social services.
The Quality Protects programme marked a new chapter in the development of children services, with funding linked to better outcomes delivered by local authorities. It was in direct response to a critical study of the care system by Sir William Utting. A series of targets were set by the government for local authorities in areas such as placement stability and educational attainment.
The research covers a broad range of topics but there is a particular emphasis on outcomes for looked-after children, and how these can be improved. There are studies on care proceedings, kinship care placements, the education of adolescents with challenging emotional needs, children and disabled young people’s participation and reuniting looked-after children with their birth families. The overall aim was to understand the difference the quality of care made to the outcomes for children in need both within and outside the care system.
In many ways, Quality Protects was the beginning of the policy focus on outcomes that has become such a strong feature of child welfare, with Every Child Matters, Care Matters and the Children’s Plan continuing this trend over the past decade.
A mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods – typically a substantial data set based on statistical returns, questionnaires or case file reviews was followed up with interviews or focus groups which gave the researchers an opportunity to explore some of the issues in more depth.
An advisory and implementation group made up of representatives of the Department for Children, Schools and Families and other major stakeholders in the sector looked at each of the studies and summarised their implications for practice. Mike Stein then wrote the overview report.
Stein draws out four cross-cutting themes in his overview report. Firstly he looks at the level of quality children’s services should aim to provide. Within this discussion he makes the point that an important aim should be to ensure stability for children in need, particularly those in care.
However, stability in itself will not ensure well-being: it is the quality of care in placements that is crucial. It is detrimental for children and young people, for example, to linger in a poor placement in order to avoid destabilising their lives by moving them on again.
In addressing the quality of the services that local authorities should be providing, Stein stresses the importance of taking a strengths-based approach with young people and their families. For example, he highlights a finding in the study of adolescents experiencing educational difficulties that while education might be problematic there may be other areas of their lives from which they derive satisfaction and enjoyment. In seeing their lives in the round, practitioners are able to promote children’s resilience by focusing on their strengths and achievements.
The second theme that Stein explores is quality care provided to children and young people. In particular, he looks at the importance of high-quality placements and in this context emphasised the very positive findings in relation to kinship care.
The third theme is around social work practice and quality services. In the increasingly integrated world of children services, a wide range of professionals will play an important role in the lives of vulnerable children and young people.
However, in the complex cases that many of the studies highlighted the lead professional was usually a social worker. Therefore a well-managed, resourced and trained social work workforce is crucial to providing high-quality services for vulnerable children.
The final theme to emerge is in relation to making quality happen. Stein argues that the studies show that there is not a consistent approach to making sure quality happens in a sustained way.
He proposes a stakeholder approach to planning in which young people and their families are involved at each stage of the process.
However, in order to make this work there should be more robust and reliable ways of collecting data about services developed. At case level, this means improving the quality of assessments so that resources are effectively matched to children and families’ needs.
● James Blewett, Social Care Workforce Research Unit, Kings College London
For children’s services managers: The recruitment, training and support of foster carers: The quality of placements is central to improving outcomes for looked-after children and young people, and local authorities in particular need to ensure that sufficient resources are provided for developing and supporting foster placements.
For social workers: Robust care planning: In recent years there has been an understandable emphasis on stability for looked-after young people. However, this should not be an end in itself. The aim should be to place a young person in a high quality placement even if this means planned moves.
For team managers: The importance of high quality training and supervision: A recurring theme is that quality care is dependent upon high quality practice from professionals involved in a family’s care. Good supervision and professional development for staff are therefore central to ensuring good practice.
For planners and commissioners: Integration and specialisation: The studies were carried out against a backdrop of policy driving an increasing process of integration. Integration needs to be carried out in a sophisticated and strategic manner, recognising that an integrated workforce need training that support their new roles but should retain access to specialist training and supervision.
Service user involvement: Is user involvement necessary? There can be a danger of simply seeing service user involvement as an acknowledgement of the rights of family members to be consulted. These studies support the case for service user participation being central to the development of high quality services.
Links and resources
- The DCSF has published several useful resources to promote the dissemination of this research. They include training materials and e-learning resources. These can be accessed at DCSF
- There are few resources that cover the breadth of the studies covered. The British Association of Adoption and Fostering has a selection of resources about looked-after children.
- Some of the studies explicitly address young people’s participation and further material in this area can be found at Voice
- A major theme in the studies was kinship care and the Fostering Network has some very helpful material in this area
This article is published in the 17 September 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Promoting Quality in Children’s Services