The government has today launched its long-anticipated independent review of the children’s social care system, with Frontline chief executive Josh MacAlister announced to lead it.
The review’s launch – and MacAlister’s appointment – has been broadly welcomed by sector leaders and children’s organisations, but concerns have been raised over his independence from the Department of Education (DfE) by some in the sector.
This is due to the DfE’s direct funding of Frontline, the fast-track training provider for children’s social workers, and ministers’ vocal championing of the organisation, since its inception, MacAlister, a former teacher who left education in 2013 to set up Frontline, will step down from his role to take charge of the review.
What will the care review do?
The review, promised in the Conservatives’ 2019 election manifesto, will consider how the children’s social care system responds to all children who are referred to it, and consider the full spectrum of need from early help to looked-after children. Within the care system, it will look at fostering, residential and kinship care, though it will be up to review to decide whether it covered adoption support.
It will also be up to the review to decide whether to include care leavers, despite the DfE’s terms of reference highlighting the poorer adult outcomes experienced by people who have been through the care system as a rationale for the review.
The DfE said the review would be a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform systems and services”, tackling “major challenges including the sharp increase in recent years in the number of looked after children, inconsistencies in practice and outcomes, and the failure of the system to provide sufficient stable homes for children”. Specific issues it would cover include:
- The capacity and capability of the system to support families to prevent children being taken into care unnecessarily.
- The review will prioritise hearing the voices of children, young people, and adults that have received the help or support of a social worker, or who have been looked after.
- How partner agencies, such as health and police, interact with children’s social care, with the review recommending improvements to the way they work together.
- The review must be workable, leading to deliverable reforms that are evidence based and demonstrate a measurable impact. It is vital that recommendations are made following consideration of the key questions of sustainability and how social care funding, workforce and other resources can be used most effectively to change children’s lives and represent good value for money
The review will also “prioritise hearing the voices of children, young people, and adults that have received the help or support of a social worker, or who have been looked after”, something that will be faciltiated through an experts by experience group that will advise MacAlister.
However, the DfE warned that its recommendations needed to be “made following consideration of the key questions of sustainability and how social care funding, workforce and other resources can be used most effectively to change children’s lives and represent good value for money”.
Review will ‘listen deeply and think boldly’
At the review’s launch, MacAlister said: “This review will listen deeply and think boldly. That is why I am recruiting for an ‘experts by experience’ Group that will direct an ambitious effort to hear the diverse experiences of children and families who have had social workers. I also need advice and challenge as we start this review, which is why I’m launching a call for advice.
“Deep down I think many of those working in the children’s social care system and certainly many of those who have experience of it, know that radical change is needed. My commitment is that this review will deliver a wide-ranging plan to extend the joy, growth and safety of childhood and the esteem, love and security of family life to all children.”
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services welcomed the review, and set out its key priorities for what it should deliver, with president Jenny Coles saying: “National investment in early help, national standards for our care system together with the capacity to deliver them, will mean fewer children need to be in care but that those who do can flourish.”
Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield, who has long campaigned vigorously on failings in the care system, said the review “must not tinker around the edges or be simply a set of recommendations that are not then acted upon”, but lead to meaningful change.
She also stressed: “It must put children’s voices at its heart. I hear from children all the time who are being pushed around the system – forced to move foster home or change school at short notice and against their wishes, and often many miles away from family and friends. I hear from older children in care who are being placed in dangerous, unregulated accommodation where they are at risk of exploitation.”
Need for remit to include care leavers
Children in care and care leavers’ charity Become said the review needed to encompass care leavers as “any review which seeks to understand and address the causes of poor experiences and outcomes for care-experienced adults cannot ignore the thousands of young people who experience a ‘care cliff’ each year”.
While it said it was right that the review focused on value for money, it called on MacAlister not to see looked-after children as “a cost to reduce”, and to not “ignore the significant impact of years of continued cuts to local authority children’s social care budgets and the accompanying removal of early family support services which has led to a growing number of children in the care system”.
What Works for Children’s Social Care – the government-established organisation that examines the research base for services and interventions in the sector – welcomed the review’s intentions to be evidence based, but stressed it needed to draw on the widest possible range of evidence and take account of gaps.
Chief executive Michael Sanders said: “There is a risk that by focusing on the data that we currently have, we end up in a situation where “those who get measured get helped”. For example, we know too little about outcomes for young people who have experience of social work, but who have not been in care – and we cannot risk leaving those groups behind.”
Seven themes for the care review
- Support: what support is needed to meet the needs of children who are referred to or involved with social care, to improve outcomes and make a long-term positive differences.
- Strengthening families: what can be done so that children are supported to stay safely and thrive with their families, to ensure the state’s powers to support and intervene in families are consistently used responsibly, balancing the need to protect children with the right to family life, avoiding the need to enter care?
- Safety: what can be done so that children who need to be in care get there quickly, and to ensure those children feel safe and are not at risk of significant harm?
- Care: what is needed for children to have a positive experience of care that prioritises stability, providing an alternative long-term family for children who need it and support for others to return home safely?
- Delivery: what are the key enablers to implement the review and raise standards across England, such as a strong, stable and resilient workforce, system leadership and partnerships, and what is needed so that this change can be delivered?
- Sustainability: what is the most sustainable and cost-effective way of delivering services, including high-cost services, who is best placed to deliver them, and how could this be improved so that they are fit for the future?
- Accountability: what accountability arrangements are necessary to ensure that the state can act appropriately, balancing the need to protect and promote the welfare of 4 children with the importance of parental responsibility, and what is needed to ensure proper oversight of how local areas discharge those responsibilities consistently?
Workforce focus required
Chris Wright, chief executive of charity Catch22, said: “There are many questions that need to be answered – from why the demand for placements exceeds supply resulting in a shortage of high-quality provision to why there is wide-scale use of unregulated care and out of area moves. We also hope the review will include a focus on the children’s social care workforce.
“There is a real need for investment in training and recruitment to ensure the best people are working with the right tools and have a recognised career trajectory.”
Kinship carers’ charity Grandparents Plus welcomed their inclusion in the review’s remit. Chief executive Lucy Peake said: “The current children’s social care system is riven with inequality, with too many children in kinship care and their carers locked out of systems that should be supporting them…The evidence shows that outcomes are better for children who grow up in kinship care than in the care system…We look forward to contributing to the review to ensure that kinship care is better understood, valued and supported in future.”
While Longfield welcomed MacAlister’s appointment and he received congratulations from a wide range of sector leaders on Twitter, others working in the sector raised concerns about how independent he would be.
Carolyne Willow, director of children’s rights charity Article 39, said: “The Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto promised an independent review yet the Secretary of State has appointed a review chair who is very close to government.”
Willow referenced MacAlister’s authorship of a controversial “blueprint for children’s social care” in 2019, which promised to significantly increase direct work by reducing layers of management and administrative requirements, but was interpreted by some as a route towards increased outsourcing.
“Now, we’re left wondering whether that vision is the shape of things to come,” Willow added. “We had hoped that someone like a highly respected retired judge or academic, or a reputed children’s author, would be appointed to undertake this incredibly important role. Someone who could generate hope and inspiration that positive change for children and children’s rights is at last on the way. Instead, today’s announcement sounds like the government already knows what it wants to happen next in children’s social care. And that makes us nervous for children.”
Community Care understands that MacAlister was appointed directly to the role based on his experience, rather than through a formal appointments process. As well as stepping down permanently from his role in Frontline, he will be expected to comply with the Nolan principles of public life, which include acting in the public interest, impartially and without inappropriate influence.
Contributing to the review
Those with an interest in the review can contribute through a call for advice issued by MacAlister, through which they can set out key questions the review should answer, how it should engage with children and families with lived experience of services and key resources to read and groups of individuals to speak to.
Children and families with past or present experience of the children’s social care system can join the experts by experience group, applications for which close on 5 February.