A campaign group of 50 social work organisations and experts have urged the children’s minister to withdraw sections of a guide which claims to bust myths about the statutory framework social workers are currently working under.
The group, Together for Children, told the minister in an open letter that parts of the document “incorrectly describe the statutory framework” and asked for the sections to be “immediately withdrawn to avoid the risk of confusion and to prevent any harmful effects on vulnerable children and young people” after receiving legal advice.
“It is of utmost importance that legal certainty be maintained when it comes to the care and protection of vulnerable children and young people looked after by local authorities. To frame as ‘myths’ a series of questions about the care system’s statutory framework is unhelpful. This is because it gives the impression that key parts of current social work knowledge and understanding are untruths,” the group said.
The guide was published earlier this year to give clarity to local authorities pursuing new ways of working that was thought would require special dispensation, but was in fact “permitted by the guidance”.
“This has shed light on a number of areas of guidance that is either misunderstood or is perceived to limit local authorities from testing new ways of working,” it said.
It covered these areas:
- individual child assessments
- combining youth offending teams and remand assessments
- return home interviews
- the number of social workers required for long-term foster placements
- if personal advisers can take on a social worker’s role for when a child is Staying Put
- frequency of visits for supervising social workers in long-term foster placements
- frequency of visits for social workers in long-term foster placements
- categories of harm in child protection conferences
- combining adoption and fostering panels
- if an independent reviewing officer should chair child protection conferences when a looked-after child’s situation is being assessed.
However, campaigners challenged seven of the document’s responses to these areas, and urged the minister to withdraw them.
“This ‘myth busting’ guide is available online, it carries your department’s logo and contains the statement that ‘all of the responses below have been agreed by the Department for Education and their lawyers in consultation with Ofsted’. It is a reasonable assumption that those reading the guide will view it as having official approval and being intended to widely impact social work practice,” campaigners said.
“Although the so-called myths are not always clearly expressed, there are statements in the document which undoubtedly run counter to the current statutory framework. Whether intended or not, this could be construed as an encouragement to local authorities to act in contravention of the statutory framework.”
Carolyne Willow, director of charity Article 39 which signed the open letter, said the guide was “another attempt at weakening the legal framework underpinning children’s social care, particularly care system”.
“It is notable that not one of the questions posed about the care system seeks to give children and young people more time, resources or support than what is already set out in the statutory framework. With local authorities struggling financially to meet their legal duties, it’s hard not to conclude that this agenda is about cutting costs and reducing the role of councils.”
Responding to the criticism in the letter, a spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “This guide is designed to help local authorities fulfil their duty to keep children in their area safe and has been drafted following their feedback. There have been no changes to the law that authorities must follow.”
Alan Wood, the newly appointed founding chair of the What Work’s Centre and a former president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, also responded to the criticism of the myth busting guide.
He said social workers need to feel confident in pushing the boundaries. “Guidance has been seen as constricting rather than guiding best practice. Social workers tell us this is problematic and gets in the way of their practice,” Wood said.
He added: “We have to ensure leaders and social workers are aware of the full flexibility they have within the law and remove any unwarranted concerns such that they can concentrate their time of motivating and supporting families to overcome with the challenges they face. The DfE myth buster will help to ensure that message is clear.”
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