Frontline chief appointed to lead children’s social care review

DfE launches “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform systems and services” as appointment of Josh MacAlister sparks concerns over review's independence from government

Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline
Josh MacAlister (photo: Frontline)

Story updated

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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.”

Independence concerns

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.”

Others voiced similar concerns about MacAlister’s independence on Twitter.

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.

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45 Responses to Frontline chief appointed to lead children’s social care review

  1. Ann-Maria January 15, 2021 at 6:27 pm #

    Well what a surprise 2021 is turning out to be. Government puts in charge of a very serious and critical service somebody who lacks integrity and competence….certain there will be some fans amongst your wide readership but hopefully the majority will see this as the strongest indication that Social Work is getting the privatisation makeover that government long for and has worked so well in..Prisons, Probation Services, …not.

  2. mercy January 15, 2021 at 6:57 pm #

    The Government could have asked Social Workers years ago, and we would have told you. More frontline Social Workers, less cases, and less paperwork.

  3. Chrissie Martin January 15, 2021 at 7:03 pm #

    So, a former teacher, who left education in 2013 to set up an agency fast tracking social workers, is now about to produce yet another social care review. I assume he’s not a qualified social worker but is clearly an excellent salesman. Glad I’m retired! Yet another reorganisation for an already depleted and demoralised workforce, the vast majority of which are female,

  4. Mark Keeley January 15, 2021 at 7:20 pm #

    I’m not convinced and neither is Carolyn Willow

  5. Margaret Beaufort January 15, 2021 at 10:00 pm #

    The disrespect for the profession continues. I wonder how those in the education profession would feel if social workers were continually placed into lead positions of national importance to the education profession.

  6. Jade January 16, 2021 at 9:05 am #

    The children’s social care services really do need to change for a better future for families and children. Also in my opinion the needs to be a new children’s act that support birth parents. As it is 2021 not 1980’s anymore. Please change the system so that so many innocent children can reunite with their birth families!!

  7. Steve Rogowski January 16, 2021 at 10:48 am #

    Thought this was supposed to be an independent and objective review!?
    Accusations of cronyism and of likely recommendations re outsourcing and profiteering on the backs of the disadvantaged are a great concern.

  8. Alt January 16, 2021 at 12:08 pm #

    Well, this helps diversify the leadership cohort.

  9. Daniel Kupka January 16, 2021 at 12:10 pm #

    It sounds like you need to concentrate more on the journey than the destination.

    • Alt January 20, 2021 at 12:24 am #

      The road to nowhere isn’t worth the journey.

  10. David Roberts January 16, 2021 at 1:03 pm #

    I’m not sure another review is really called for. The issues are well known and were highlighted well in Munro’s review of the child protection system. Likewise Josh Macalister himself wrote a number of articles around 2011 and 2012 outlining the issues. Seems odd that nothing has happened in the 8 years since then to improve things.

    The only bits to add now will be around the impact of austerity and the decimation of local Government since 2010. But given it was this Government who implemented those disastrous policies, I doubt there will be much emphasis on either of those issues within this review.

    As Carolyne Willow outlines above, I think the likelihood is that the conclusions and the remedial actions have already been decided on and so the review is just a rubber stamping exercise to ensure that the Government are seen to be following due process. I’m sure Josh Macalister and others in Government would say that’s a cynical take but as a Social Worker, I have to look at evidence when making conclusions and there is a not a single area of public life where this Government hasn’t engaged in cronyism and outsourcing.

  11. Callum January 16, 2021 at 1:28 pm #

    Terms of reference drawn by Gavin Williamson, appointment made by Gavin Williamson, led by a “social entrepreneur’ who set up Frontline to privatise social work education with a £1m sweetener from David Cameron. Doesn’t look like diversity, smells of cronyism. Let’s see how our leaders challenge the orthodoxy now.

  12. Candice January 16, 2021 at 1:44 pm #

    Here is a prediction. There will be no mention of inadequate funding of children’s care. There will be no mention of how poverty impacts on children’s experiences and their life chances. There will be accusations of “ideological commitments” hampering families. There will be blaming of social workers for resisting “necessary change”. There will not be any reference to racism playing a role in poor outcomes. There will be collusion from the Chief Social Worker, SWE and most shamefully there will be safe grandstanding by the self proclaimed anti-oppressive leadership of BASW.

  13. Kirsty Jane Howell January 16, 2021 at 2:18 pm #

    I most definitely would like to be part of the ‘experts by experience group’ please.

  14. Carmel January 16, 2021 at 3:44 pm #

    This sounds amazing !!!
    But,As a foster carer for over 13 years I have little faith in a system that is broken.

  15. Lisa smith January 16, 2021 at 5:35 pm #

    Kinship care deffinatly needs more support. A lot of young vunerble children are being cared for by other family members with little or no support from children’s services.

    My 6 year old grandson has lived with me for 20 months if it wasn’t for me he would be in care now. As his last port of call I would of thought I would of thought it would be a priory for children’s services to support me in every way possible to ensure he dosnt end up in care

  16. Polly Parrot January 17, 2021 at 11:41 am #

    Welcome our future Education Secretary and soon to be Lord MacAlister.

  17. Ray Jones January 17, 2021 at 7:36 pm #

    I am struggling to understand the process for this significant and important review, which the government itself has described as a once-in-a-lifetime review. First, previously major reviews would have been led by someone with obvious experience and expertise in the focus of the review or by someone with recognised independence of government and extensive leadership experience and credibility, such as a high court judge, university vice-chancellor or cross-bench peer. Not this time. Secondly, this review is to be led by someone who the government describes as the chair of the review. Unlike, for example the review of child protection which was personally undertaken by Eileeen Munro who wrote the review report as her report, this is not presented as a review by Josh MacAlister. He is described as the review’s chair. So who are the other members of the review team that Josh MacAlister will be chairing? There is still the opportunity therefore for the review to be shaped as a cross-party commissioned review with other members of the review to be appointed with cross-party agreement because of their experience and expertise and with clear independence of government. Or is that the government and the civil servants advising it, including presumably the chief social worker in the DfE, really are dressing up this review as independent when actually they have commissioned a report from someone who is already within their inner circle?

    • Mark Keeley January 18, 2021 at 11:15 am #

      I think the chief social worker has been missing for a while….now part of the inner circle

  18. Anthony January 17, 2021 at 8:30 pm #

    Not sure when Social Work England has already endorsed this review, social workers still believe this is a cynical exercise in further undermining public services by a government which doesn’t even try to hide their contempt for social workers. Surely a social work regulator wouldn’t support privatisation by stealth? Surely SWE wouldn’t participate in a ‘review’ with an already determined outcome would they?

  19. Annoyed and disenfranchised January 17, 2021 at 9:38 pm #

    I am just baffled by this appointment. There are so many fantastic academics that could have led this review with knowledge; experience and vigour. Josh is very ambitious and has the facade of success. But this is a man who gained funding for Frontline on the basis that all SWs were rubbish and he needed to find lever and elite social workers who went to posh universities to save the system.

    But the Cardiff University study into the attrition rates of ‘Frontline Social Workers’ lo and behold indicated that ‘Frontline’ was a not the magic bullet that Macalister purported it to be and it turns out the situation is a wee bit more complicated than his initial hypothesis. Rater than apologise for his simplistic interpretation: he merely threw more PR at the situation and said he never proclaimed that Frontline would change the professions (but he kind of did).

    I feel that Josh and FL are very shiny and nice to look at. They have lovely offices in central London and Josh talks in a very knowledgable manner. But, when you stretch the surface, there is little depth to his thinking.

    It is scandalous that he was appointed based on his ‘experience’ rather than a formal interview process.

    I would like Josh to answer the following questions without using google, his mates or any books:

    What is a section 47 enquiry?
    What are the standard requirements for a child protection visit?
    What are the standard requirements for a visit to a child in local authority care?
    How often do reviews takes place for children in local authority foster care?
    What is the purpose of a Secure Accommodation Order? What is the legal framework and describe a situation when it might be appropriate to apply for such an order? Please reflect on the very basic principles for a child or young person’s human right to be at liberty. How do you reconcile the application alongside the Human Right’s Act?
    What does ex parte mean? When, in the rare case it should be applied, should I be considered?
    What defines a child in need? Is this a compulsory arrangement? What happens if the parent’s decline in this process: What are your powers?
    How would you communicate a child that need to change placement very quickly? What skills would you use to help with such a terrible situation?
    How would you manage a parent who has put a knife to your face? What are powers for yourself and the children in the house?
    What is a Personal Education Planning meeting? What are the statutory timescales for this meeting and how would you open up funding for this child?
    What processes would you follow If a child made an allegation against a residential home or foster career?
    How do you explain to a child that they need to removed 200 miles from their home as this is the only available placement?
    how do you explain to a child that their family time has been restricted due to cover?
    How do you explain to a child that they can no longer hug their parents because of cover?
    How do you explain to a child that they are now going to live with their adoptive parents: rather than their birth parents when they love them implicitly?
    How do. you tell an 18 year old child that they have to move on from their placement into a bedsit because the are ‘looked after’ and this is what happens?

    If you struggle with any of these questions: perhaps time to admit that you do not have the skill to complete this enquiry.

    • Tee January 19, 2021 at 6:23 am #

      Brilliant response. Thank you! Let’s see what conclusions are drawn from this review as it will most likely be what social workers have been saying all along but noone cared to listen. Because we’re idiots right, with all our experience.

  20. O Ade January 18, 2021 at 9:23 am #

    We can all agree that reform is badly needed in children social care. The high caseloads leading to unsafe practices, unregulated children’s home and the concentration on process at the expense of spending more time with children and families accessing the service are some of the areas in dire need of reform. That being said, there have been a number of reviews who have made recommendations that got stuck at the implementation and police stage.

    I might be considered naïve, but I think Macalister’s review should be given a chance. His good relationship with the present government might help overcome the policies differences that has hampered implementation of previous reviews. The present status quo in social care is not sustainable. More importantly, it does not appear to be fully meeting children and young peoples needs

  21. Ian Merry January 18, 2021 at 10:14 am #

    I would like to introduce a new word into social work. It is an acronym, composed of words that relate to top figures in the current social work landscape, Directors, CEO’s and the like and would clearly apply to Mr MacAlister.

    The word is MOOMADS and stands for people who, “Make Money Out Of Misery, Anguish, Despair and Suffering”. They are modern alchemists making capital gold out of unmet basic human needs, and should be viewed as parasites who constantly take and never give or positively contribute to any social work undertaking.

    So it goes

  22. Social Worker who has heard it all before January 18, 2021 at 10:19 am #

    What a pointless waste of time and money. Ask any Social Worker and they will be able to clearly tell you what is wrong with the system and what needs to change.
    Despite all the expectation that came with Eileen Munro’s review, little changed at all and her recommendations seemed to be barely acknowledged by Local Authorities.
    If anyone should conduct this review, it should be Ray Jones.

    • Tom J January 20, 2021 at 9:51 am #


  23. Kate January 18, 2021 at 10:23 am #

    What are chances of us supposed naysayers being told off if we raise a bit of doubt being told that unlike the ‘independent review’ we are not listening to experts by experience? How often will we be reprimanded for our supposed vested interest in maintaining the status quo? To boot maybe we don’t need so many qualified social workers also. After all when all children need is love, skip over school meals you cynics, we know that kind hearted volunteers and civic minded charities are better at it than cynical ideology driven social workers.

  24. Ray Jones January 18, 2021 at 10:24 am #

    Well worth reading these two well informed and well researched pieces by Di Galpin. They are impressive and informative. They highlight why there should be concerns about how this review could be shaped and resourced, with international management consultants and venture capitalists beavering away under the public radar. May be they, as before with the ‘blueprint’ for children’s social care they jointly prepared, will make up the team to be chaired by Mr MacAlister:

    • Tom J January 20, 2021 at 9:52 am #

      thanks this is a great resource

    • Di Galpin January 22, 2021 at 9:53 pm #

      Thank you Ray. I have been accused of ‘sour grapes’ and that I am one of many ‘disgruntled academics’ with an axe to grind over Frontline ….. Well I am interested in sharing a different perspective in an open manner, trying to look beneath the surface to develop knowledge, then sharing it with others to stimulate debate.

      Going beneath the surface is a vital aspect of social work practice, and its what academics do, its what social workers are educated to do, to question and establish whats going on…… if our critics cannot understand that, then they do not understand social work

      Thanks you for your support and for your work.

  25. Sarah January 18, 2021 at 10:41 am #

    People are being unkind. We surely must take seriously the independence of the esteemed Chair when he with a straight but no doubt concerned face, says there must be a “fair” way of selection to join his group so people need to apply and that him receiving a bung, sorry, a personal grant, is the equivalent of local authority funding. Chutzpah doesn’t come close really.

  26. Rob January 18, 2021 at 12:47 pm #

    Strangely muted response from BASW. I trust they are not manoeuvring for a seat round the high table of the hand picked.

  27. Tony January 18, 2021 at 3:48 pm #

    I tweeted Josh MacCalister to ask what the criteria is for selecting the experts by experience and other interested parties. I got a reply saying everything will be in place by March for the Review Team to start their work. Not answering a basic query is either a ruse or he doesn’t have the foggiest or is keeping the already selected cohort underwraps so as to pretend there was a robust consultation and selection process leading up to March. I am not sure I am capable of the trust we are urged to have regarding the “trancparency” of all this.

  28. Colin Stratton January 18, 2021 at 9:41 pm #

    Josh MacAlister asks us to judge him on his track record. We have.

  29. Maxi January 18, 2021 at 9:55 pm #

    Disappointing that having overused Radical to make a noise Mr MacAlister is yet to assail us with Levelling Up. His mate Gavin Williamson will be very cross. Buck up, there are expectations you need to meet.

  30. Christian Kerr January 18, 2021 at 10:09 pm #

    ‘The care review — A foregone conclusion?’

    • Tom J January 20, 2021 at 11:54 am #

      thankyou for this

  31. Cassie January 19, 2021 at 11:04 am #

    If lack of experience, buzzwords, parrotting what’s expected, shameless opportunism, fleecing the public purse, demeaning the ‘undeserving, elitism, silencing disagreement, smug certainty, orthodoxy reframed as radicalism were impediments to expertise, we wouldn’t have the shambles that is Social Work England either. There are people who know better than us, who are leaders. We should respect and revere them. All things must pass apparently. Time now for a more relevant and more cost effective social work. Time for change, time for reviving philanthropic social work. Time to think about extending charges for care services. Time to replace pesky, moaning, unable to follow orders, ideology driven social workers. Time to get all those academics off the payroll too. Do we really need so many institutions now Frontline has shown the route to competence? Just so it’s clear, elite social workers don’t need supervision, they have inner vision. Elite social workers don’t need managers to take responsibility for unmanageable caseloads or service deficiencies, they have personal insight. A new more targeted system needs less “ideology” and more innovation by marketising care services doesn’t it? Time to accept that it’s not about resources, it’s not about structural inequalities, it’s not about social policy, it’s not about irrelevant buraucracy imposed to ration and cut services. Racism? Time to get away from such woke exceptionalism. Thinking, reflection, disagreement belong to CPD uploads. See that laptop? Take it home, we need new ways of working. Money for feeding children? A bit problematic. Money for consultants to show how much better social workers can do? Name the price.Teamwork is so last century. Conflict of interest? Stop the negativity and cynicism.

  32. Tom J January 20, 2021 at 11:26 am #

    I would just like to say thankyou to CommunityCare for creating this space for social workers and others to share their views on this.

    As in almost every other area of media its usually the case that FrontLine would buy up lots of advertising space from you, and without needing to explicitly say so, CommunityCare would understand that they should not allow any dissent.

    I hope that CommunityCare will continue to be a space for all views to be heard; from the service user to the big players such as Josh McCallister and company.

  33. Trevor January 20, 2021 at 7:41 pm #

    Community Care is many things but as one of lifes moaning contrarians I have never been censored, censured or denied a space for my dissent.

  34. denise lyon January 25, 2021 at 1:10 pm #

    Hopefully they will consider talking to the IRO’s in all this
    Thought this was supposed to be an independent and objective review
    No mention of The IRO

  35. SarahW February 1, 2021 at 10:23 pm #

    I think Lemn Sissay should head this review!

    • Ros February 5, 2021 at 9:07 pm #



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