The impact of the independent reviewing officer (IRO) on care planning and reviews for looked after children

What the first research says on the role of the independent reviewing officer and the impact on practice.

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By Nigel Thomas, professor of childhood and youth research, University of Central Lancashire

Over the past 20 years research has painted a consistent picture of the difficulties in sustaining good practice in care planning and reviews for looked after children (LAC) Thomas, (2011) and Bijleveld et al. (2013).

The biggest challenges have been:

  • Ensuring planning and review are centred on what is best for the particular child and not driven by agency policies and budgets.
  • Ensuring decisions made at planning and review meetings are fully implemented and not undermined by other decisions (often taken in haste) made in response to a perceived emergency enabling children and young people to take a full part in planning and review processes. 

In response to these challenges the role of the independent reviewing officer (IRO) was developed, at first informally and then under statutory provision. In England, the 2010 Regulations consolidated the role of the IRO, who is responsible for ensuring that plans are regularly reviewed and properly implemented, and has a particular responsibility for engaging with children and enabling them to take part in the process.


Until recently there had been no research into the impact of the IRO on practice. However, a recently completed study by the NCB goes some way to filling the gap (Jelicic et al., 2014). While the research does not enable firm conclusions to be drawn about the difference made by the IRO in comparison to previous practice (because too much time has passed and too many other changes have taken place), it does give some good indications of their impact.

The authors claim that IROs have had their greatest impact in making sure that a child’s care plan is reviewed in a timely fashion.

“This was one of the reasons why the IRO service was created in the first place, and just because timely reviews could now be taken for granted in most cases, their role in ensuring that this happens should not be underestimated,” it stated.

IROs were also seen as having had an ongoing influence on cases, particularly in ensuring that the care planning process focused on permanency and was child-centred and evidence-based.

“Participants’ accounts showed what difference IROs could make when they operated as intended, but also their limited ability to make a difference when the service was not implemented effectively”.


That said, the research revealed wide variations in practice.

There was a shared understanding that IROs need to have, not only a child-centred approach, but also an ongoing engagement with a case in order to assure quality in care planning. Despite this, the research found that many IROs did not actively engage with all cases between reviews.

Also, IROs in some areas had insufficient hours to carry out a review, and the immediate pre- and post-review tasks, properly. Formal processes for raising issues and challenging poor practice did not always work particularly well and were not yet “culturally” accepted by social work teams.

Children’s experiences varied greatly. It appeared that a good relationship with an IRO was crucial in children’s understanding of the IRO’s role in the care planning process.

Some social workers reported that IROs did not spend enough time with children to prepare them for reviews and were not creative in the ways they engaged them.

The report suggests that “processes to enable IROs to engage and influence cases require considerable fine-tuning, with a national framework provided to support the development of local protocols” (Jelicic et al., 2014: 9).

Thomas and Percy-Smith (2012) found that Children in Care Councils had a major potential contribution to make to quality of services, but that this could not be left to participation workers alone. There was a need for more “joined-up working” between social workers- with their responsibility for taking account of the wishes and feelings of individual children, and participation workers- who promote collective engagement, often at the level of a whole local authority. 

Impact on practice

It is worth reflecting on the importance of planning and review for children and young people who are looked after. When we accept responsibility for corporate parenting we have an obligation to ensure that all our decisions and actions are centred on what is best for this particular child.

The challenges in keeping processes child-centred, especially in a context of austerity, are too great to be met by one person alone: social workers, IROs and managers have to work together to promote good, effective and ethical practice. The same professionals must also work together to ensure that children and young people can be fully involved in plans and reviews.

Joint guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (NICE/SCIE, 2010) recommended that Directors of Children’s Services should:

  • Ensure that all social workers and IROs implement the statutory guidance on care planning, placement and case review.
  • Ensure that the social worker’s role is supported by regular high-quality supervision and continuing professional development.
  • Implement in full the strengthened function of the independent reviewing officer outlined in guidance.
  • Ensure that the voice of the child or young person is heard at every stage in the care planning process. 

Questions for social workers

  • Why is it important to review plans for children and young people who are looked after?
  • What are the challenges in keeping processes child-centred?
  • How can children and young people be more fully involved in plans and reviews?
  • How is responsibility shared between the child’s social worker and the IRO? 

Legislative framework

Planning and reviewing for looked after children in the UK is now governed by The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010, The Review of Children’s Cases (Wales) Regulations 2007 and The Placement of Children (Wales) Regulations 2007, The Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009, The Arrangements for Placement of Children (General) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1996 and The Review of Children’s Cases Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1996). The overarching principles remain those of the Children Act 1989 and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995: the primacy of the child’s welfare, the obligation to take account of the child’s wishes and feelings, and the importance of continuing parental responsibility.

References and further reading

Bessell, S. (2010) Participation in decision-making in out-of-home care in Australia: What do young people say? Children and Youth Services Review 33(4), 496-501

Bijleveld, G., Dedding, C. and Bunders-Aelen, J. (2013) Children’s and young people’s participation within child welfare and child protection services: a state-of-the-art review, Child & Family Social Work. Published online 4 July 2013, DOI: 10.1111/cfs.12082

Jelicic, H., La Valle, I. and Hart, D. (2014) The role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) in England: Final report, London: National Children’s Bureau

Morgan, R. (2012) Children’s Care Monitor 2011: children on the state of social care in England. Report by the Children’s Rights Director for England. London: Ofsted

NICE/SCIE (2010) Looked-after children and young people: NICE public health guidance 28, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence

Thomas, N. (2011) ‘Care planning and review for looked after children: fifteen years of slow  progress?’, British Journal of Social Work 41(2), 387-398

Thomas, N. and Percy-Smith, B. (2012) ‘It’s about changing services and building relationships’: evaluating the development of Children in Care Councils, Child & Family Social Work 17(4), 487-496

Winter, K. (2010) ‘The perspectives of young children in care about their circumstances and implications for social work practice’, Child & Family Social Work 15(2), 186-195 

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