by Ryan Wise
Child and family social work exists in several complicated and interconnected political, social and interpersonal spheres. The complex nature of the profession can be demonstrated in the numerous potential priorities and issues to come in 2019.
Priorities will change dependent on the lens you view the profession. Here are some ideas which may encourage a conversation or a thought about what you believe are the issues, themes and priorities for the sector for the year ahead.
Social work education
The first part of the year is likely to be spent understanding the fallout from Frontline being awarded a further £45 million to train 900 social workers. So far the response to Frontline has been mixed. A letter written by senior figures in the profession last year challenged the need for, and effectiveness of, fast-track training. The letter called for a suspension of the tender that was just awarded. There was a reply from Frontline challenging the criticisms made of it, which included several directors of children’s services openly stating support for Frontline.
The landscape appears divided. If division continues, what may this mean for the sector and profession? The outcome of the tender shows the appetite, at least from the government, of fast-track schemes will remain.
At the same time there are significant developments in teaching partnerships and the impending launch of apprenticeships promises to widen the range of routes into social work once again.
There continues to be a passionate debate about the focus of funding for routes into social work. It could be that Social Work England (SWE) takes a role in facilitating this going forward. For example, much debate of late has focused on the curriculum of Frontline.
The care crisis review
Led by the Family Rights Group, the care crisis review offered 20 options for change when considering the more than 30-year high of children being in the care system in 2018.
2019 could be a key year for the review. The material is there and the challenges have been outlined, but the next step is ensuring this leads to change.
A particular focus of the review was around the family drug and alcohol court (FDAC), a less adversarial approach to care proceedings pioneered by Nick Crichton, a strong advocate for families and change who sadly passed away in December of 2018. FDAC has a sound evidence base for success with independent research in 2014 and 2016 concluded that outcomes for children and families in FDAC are far better than in normal care proceedings and it is a more cost effective approach.
Funding for the national FDAC unit, which supports courts across the country, ceased in September 2018 and is currently running without a confirmed revenue stream, there is a hope for further funding in 2019 yet with news in 2018 that a national board set up to improve the performance of family justice system had not met for 17 months and Sir James Munby sharing the collapse in funding as being ‘profoundly disturbing’, the future is unclear.
One would hope that the recommendations of the care crisis review is taken on board in 2019 and further funding is secured for the FDAC national unit, FDAC will not be the only solution but secure funding for this approach would represent a step in the right direction.
Austerity and privatisation
In September 2018, East Sussex was awarded an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating. In the months that followed, it was announced that significant cuts would be made to its children’s services departments to plug funding gaps. It was recognised that this would lead to a possible increase of child protection plans.
BASW continues to heavily advocate for a change in policies away from austerity. The government response to challenges around funding often focuses on the innovation programme and investment in models which appear to be effective in supporting better practice, for example further funding for the Family Safeguarding Model.
The Association for Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has drawn significant attention to the future impact of cuts and more recently, a study from the University of Lancaster drew attention to ‘social murder’ as a result of policies of austerity.
Increased ‘outstanding’ services may reflect organisational systems to be performing better, but a chronic lack of funding cannot be ignored. Services need to be available for families to succeed. This has recently been flagged by Yvette Stanley, who points out improvements with Ofsted ratings but shares a warning about the impact of cuts. In the inspectorate’s annual report it warned “although statutory social care services have been largely locally protected, reductions in funding in other areas are leaving [local authorities] unable to intervene early enough when young people present as needing help”.
The funding gap needs to be addressed. What is unclear is the role of the sector in challenging this and advocating for better services. There needs to be a united front and increasing of the argument. I think social workers need to be involved, but with caseloads increasing and levels of bureaucracy high, how do we best advocate for those we work with alongside the statutory requirements of the social worker role? How far does the political interfere in day-to-day practice as state employees?
The outlook of service provision and state funding is linked to privatisation in the sector. Ray Jones, who recently published a book on this, says that greater private sector involvement could pose risks to children and families. Jones fears a reduction in quality and a lack of overview from councils which could lead to more confusion, fragmentation and a lack of accountability.
The role of the private sector and establishment of trusts is something which will remain under critical focus in 2019. The role of the private sector in fostering continues to be a worry with private companies drawing significant profits from the care of vulnerable young people.
The What Works Centre and developing an evidence base
The What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care will in 2019 be set up as an independent organisation tasked with generating evidence of what works in social care. The priorities of the centre will develop over time but one of the main areas of interest for 2019 will be the centres work on what is meant by ‘good practice’.
The centre will be publishing systematic reviews of commonly used interventions such as solution brief therapy and family group conferencing. This follows a report on the effectiveness of Signs of Safety in reducing the need for children to come into care.
One main development for the sector in 2019, will be the development of the outcomes framework for research shared in late 2018. The framework could potentially help with evaluating research and shaping decision making in practice. Put simply, the framework encourages the sector to think: What do we mean by good practice? What does good practice achieve?
As always, there will be a debate around Ofsted and the impact of Ofsted ratings. Are they more reflective of how well a system is operating in a difficult context, rather than how the outcomes for children and families improved? Ofsted do focus on the ‘experience’ of children and young people and perhaps that is its way of appreciating they cannot accurately – at this stage – measure all necessary outcomes?
I have no doubt organisations such as Leeds, North Yorkshire, East Sussex are excellent in their approach and are creatively offering solutions to families, but how robust are these inspections in a time where families are facing cuts to support?
Of course, the priorities for the sector each year comes down to the context in which each individual social worker finds themselves. This isn’t an exhaustive list as there are plenty of other areas that will develop over the coming year, such as BASW’s 80-20 campaign, the growth of the Family Safeguarding Model and the role of contextual safeguarding, to name but a few.
There is cause for optimism. More local authorities are being recorded as ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’. We may not fully understand why, but the reports highlight key strengths which show creativity, innovation and excellence.
Interestingly, I wonder if we have agreement about our purpose and what our children’s welfare and social care system should look like. Are we in a slow process of change, change does take time, and will different ways of working develop our system from the inside out?