by Andy Elvin
Good times for a change? We’ve been here before: The Laming review, Social Work Taskforce, Munro review, No More Blame Games. Is this set of reforms the time we see cohesive and comprehensive action to improve outcomes for vulnerable children?
Since 2010 we have seen action, we have not one but two chief social workers. This has led to a stronger social work voice at the Department of Health and Department for Education (DfE). Partly as a result of this we have Frontline, Think Ahead and the Innovation programme. This is actual structural improvement and change that feeds directly into improving outcomes for children.
Yes we have austerity cuts but, as many sector leaders acknowledge, there is already a lot of money spent in children’s social care and high spending does not equal outstanding services and improved outcomes. There is no doubt that local authorities being forced to seek savings in foster care allowances or social work staffing will have a negative effect on outcomes, but it is not the whole story.
This week the government have unveiled new reforms for the sector. What’s the likely impact of this next set of proposed changes?
Despite the Prime Minister’s spin, who has again shown in The Sunday Times that he cannot talk about children in care without promoting adoption above other equally valid placement options, there is nothing in this bill that promotes adoption over other placement types.
The proposal is a change to section 31 of the Children Act regarding the care plan presented by the local authority. This will require the local authority to show that their preferred long-term plan must take account of:
- The impact of the harm the child has suffered or was likely to suffer
- Current and future needs of the child resulting from said harm
- The way in which the long term plan would meet these needs
All of this is eminently sensible. In practical terms it will raise the evidential bar for all care planning.
The biggest impact, rightly, will be on special guardianship order (SGO) assessments. The logic of this is that these will have to move to be on a par with fostering assessments. The court is being asked to make a decision that will last not only the child’s minority, but impact the rest of their life.
Of course this will butt up against the 26 week aim for care proceedings to be completed. Better planning for earlier family group conferences will be needed so extended family options are known and in assessment as proceeding begin but, if an extended family option emerges during proceedings then sufficient time must be given for a proper assessment of their suitability against the new test.
Of course the same rules apply for care plans where adoption or long-term fostering is the long-term plan, though in these cases the potential adopters or foster family should already be assessed and approved so there may be less need to extend proceedings. This does not mean that the case for the care plan will be any less rigorously reviewed against the new test. As Re B-S showed the courts will hold local authorities to account if the evidence for the care plan over other options is not robust enough.
Care Leaver’s Covenant
There has been some talk but precious little detail on this.
So far we know that it will place a statutory duty on local authorities to tell care leavers the support they are entitled to, extend the right of a personal adviser up to the age of 25, and will include standards for how local authorities act as a ‘corporate parent’.
This is good but telling care leavers what they are entitled to and adding requirements for local authorities is not enough. The DfE is also the corporate parent and needs to lead by acting
The covenant for care leavers should, at the very least, include:
- All children in care being able to remain in care until at least 21
- Free University tuition or a guaranteed apprenticeship for all care leavers
- A personal adviser to 25 is great but for the those in foster care this should be in close conjunction with the foster carer or could even be the foster carer where the young person wants this
- Access to secure tenancy housing
- Access to mental health support at child threshold levels to 25 if indicated
Unless Ministers are confident that we are offering to the State’s children what they would provide for their own children then they have not done enough.
Social Work Reform
A proper post-qualification pathway to ensure career long learning, training, development and reflection backed up by accreditation and licensing, that is properly overseen, has been missing from social work for far too long.
The expected introduction of specialist regulator for social work to enable clear focus on standards; effective training and development will be very welcome. The Health and Care Professions Council, like the General Social Care Council before it, was not equipped for the task required.
The work Isabelle Trowler has done will inform how this continuing professional development proposal is rolled out, and the signs are positive that this will significantly improve practice and so outcomes for children.
So, on balance, this does look like social work and vulnerable children might just get what they want, and need, this time.
Andy Elvin is the chief executive of TACT Fostering & Adoption