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.
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.”